Saturday, April 30, 2016

A Love That Obeys

There are many ways that we can show love to others. Husbands and wives can show love by kissing. Friends often hug when they meet. Besides the physical displays of affection, we show love by spending time together, by listening to one another or by sending cards. These and many other signs of love let others know that we are thinking about them and that we care for them.

Another way to show love - a way that is not very romantic - is through obedience. When children obey their parents, it is an act of love. By doing what a parent asks, children show that they trust that their father and mother know what is best for them. By behaving, children show that they have respect for their parents and want to live according to the values their parents are trying to instill in them.

Obedience is not only a sign of love between children and their parents, it is also a sign of love between believers and God. Jesus tells us in the gospel, "Whoever loves me will keep my word." And to make sure that we understand his meaning, he tells us again, "Whoever does not love me, does not keep my word." As children put their trust in their parents' guidance, so we as believers put our trust in God's will for our lives. By obeying God's word we are affirming that he has a plan for us, and that his plan is far better than any other we could craft for ourselves. By saying "yes" to God's word as it comes down to us in the Bible and the teaching of the Church, we acknowledge that he cares for us, and we profess that we love him enough to do what he asks of us.

Obedience can be a dirty word in today's world. It makes us think of mean teachers who are ready to rap our knuckles with a ruler every time we get out of line. It conjures up images of a God who is ready to punish us for every sin. In today's world, we prefer to make our own decisions about what is right and what is wrong. If a rule does not make sense to us - especially if it is a Church teaching - we are more than happy just to ignore it. It is hard for us to accept that someone can tell us what we ought to believe and how we should practice our faith. It is difficult for us to think that obedience has anything at all to do with love.

On one level, such an attitude can be a good and healthy one to have. We should not only know what the Church teaches, but we should also understand it. It is the job of the bishops along with religious, priests and teachers to help us to make sense of what the Church teaches and why. Understanding is central to being able to accept what the Church teaches and incorporate it into our daily lives.

However, the attitude which is not good and which is in fact deadly for our spiritual lives is the one that says that if we do not understand a certain teaching of the Church, then we will not follow it. When we act that way, we stay stuck in our false beliefs and misconceptions and are unable to grow in our faith. A better attitude would be to say, "I do not understand this teaching, but I am going to try to understand it and live it." Instead of rejecting it outright, it is better to ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten our minds and hearts so that we can accept the teaching in an authentic way and be able to explain it to others and even defend it when necessary.

Another reason we can find obedience distasteful is our image of the Church. Because we are exposed to a media which is constantly critical of the Church, we can often think of it as an institution of men who keep themselves busy by making up rules for us to follow. But the Church is so much more than buildings and bureaucracies. The Church is people. The Church is us. We are saints and sinners who have strived to show our love for Jesus by obedience to his word. During these two thousand years, we have accumulated much wisdom and insight into human nature and God's plan for the world. Church teaching, whether it concern what we believe or the moral life we must lead, is nothing else but an application of the teaching of Jesus for today that is strengthened by the accumulated wisdom of centuries of believers. Church teaching is a gift to us who seek to follow Christ because it points out to us a sure way that we can follow to reach the kingdom of God.

There is no doubt that Church leaders frequently let us down and even hurt us. They are not always good examples of what it is to be a follower of Christ. Nonetheless, our faith in the Church and its teaching does not come from our confidence in its leaders. Rather it comes from our faith in the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would remain with the Church always so that it could never be led into error regarding the most important doctrines of faith and morals. The Holy Spirit works powerfully through the Church so that we can have assurance that by accepting its teaching we are on a sure course to salvation. The Holy Spirit guarantees that in the Church, despite all its weakness and failures, we will meet the Risen Lord and be transformed by his word.  

If we love Jesus, we will keep his word. His word is not far from us. It is easily accessible through the Bible and through the teaching of the Church. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit which we received at our baptism and confirmation helps us to understand that word and apply it to our daily lives. If our heart is open and we are willing to obey, then we can be sure that we are on a path to the Kingdom where Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father and where we may live forever in the glory of heaven.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Jesus Says, "Love One Another"

What would the world look like if all Christians took seriously Jesus’ words in today’s gospel: “Love one another as I have loved you”?

Imagine Christians all over the planet putting aside their differences to serve the poor and comfort the afflicted. How much less loneliness would there be if we visited the sick, spent time with the elderly and gave shelter to the homeless? What if all people of faith, inspired by the love of Jesus, worked to raise the standard of living for workers, to provide affordable healthcare for the infirm and to ensure the right to life for all human beings from the time they are conceived until their natural death?

There would be no problems we could not solve if we simply made our number one priority to love one another as Jesus loved us. Our world would enjoy profound and lasting peace as Christians began to put aside the hurts of the past and to forgive one another. Reaching out to our brothers and sisters of other races, nationalities and religions, we would work together to bring justice for all people rather than just to ensure our own narrow interests. The longstanding conflicts which have brought so much strife and conflict to our planet would melt away as followers of Jesus turned the other cheek when insulted, forgave readily when offended and sought reconciliation rather than retribution.

Imagine the transformation that would happen in families if Jesus’ love were at the center of all homes. What if husbands and wives saw their marriages as a holy calling from God and strove to put the interests of their spouses before their own? How much richer our society would be if they would be generous in bringing children into the world and giving them a home in which they learned to be responsible citizens and holy saints! Imagine every home being a place where the elderly are taken care of, the lonely find a welcome and children are made to feel special. How much more peaceful and humane would our society be if all our laws and public institutions supported marriage and family life?

Also, imagine the renewal which would take place in our Church? After Pentecost, it was the love that Christians showed each other which drew people to the good news about Jesus. What if we loved each other so sincerely and intensely that our neighbors began to take notice? How full would our Masses be if people felt welcomed, valued and uplifted? What if, instead of waiting for people to come to us, we began going door to door to reach out to those who have stopped worshipping with us or who have never heard of God’s love for them? Imagine the change that would take place if all of us could learn to share the good news of Jesus’ love without condemning or judging others. What if people could really feel in their hearts and believe that we love them? There would be no room for all those who would pour out of their homes to worship the God of love with us.

In today’s second reading from the book of Revelation, we hear God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth. It will be a place where God lives among the people He loves. This presence of God will ensure that there will be no more pain or suffering. As Saint John tells us, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain…” It is the hope for a future paradise that our Heavenly Father promises to establish at the end of time. It is the full flowering of His love made visible and real for all people.

Only God has the power to bring about this new heaven and new earth. We who look forward to it with faith and hope must strive in this life to make it more visible and real through our acts of love. Because we are weak and fallen people, it will always seem impossible to us. We will always experience the temptation to put ourselves first, to brood over injuries or to simply withdraw from the struggle for justice. However, all things are possible for God. If we give our lives over to Him, responding to His love for us by loving Him in return, then our hearts will overflow with compassion for others. In our zeal to serve God through our neighbor, we will begin to forget ourselves. The challenges we face in striving for a life of goodness and a world of justice will not compare to the joy we feel in simply loving others. Then we will know that it is God working through us, helping us to overcome our selfishness and to live for others. We cannot achieve it on our own. The renewal of the Church and of society can only come about through God working in us through love.

Jesus tells us in today’s second reading, “Behold, I make all things new.” All things are made new in Christ through love. That renewal begins, first of all, with our hearts. Once we are transformed by love, our families begin to change. Once our families begin to change, our Church becomes fully alive and active. Once our Church becomes fully alive and active, our society becomes more civil and just. Once our society becomes more civil and just, our world can finally know peace. It is a dream that will only be fully realized at the end of time. However, it is a reality that we can already enjoy if we will live Jesus’ commandment of love. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Love One Another

On  April 11 2013, a Catholic priest was honored at the White House. It may be the first time that the United States has bestowed an award on someone who was at the same time being considered for sainthood. His name is Fr. Emil Joseph Kapaun.

He was born on April 20, 1916 to immigrants from the Czech republic. After he was ordained a priest in 1940, he decided to serve as an army chaplain at the end of World War II and was eventually sent to Korea in July of 1950.

During one especially fierce battle, he was given the opportunity to fall back to a safer location in the field. However, he refused, preferring to stay by the side of the wounded and dying. He was finally captured by the Chinese forces and was marched 87 miles to a prisoner of war camp in North Korea.

Though he was often threatened by the guards, he defied their orders, visiting the other prisoners to offer them comfort, hear their confessions, offer Mass and encourage them. Often he would go without food to share it with the sick.

He died in the prisoner of war camp of starvation and pneumonia on May 23, 1951.

Those soldiers who knew Fr. Kapaun called him their hero. His humility and love helped them endure imprisonment, torture and hours of interrogation. He was also remembered for the holiness of his life which radiated through all he did.

In today’s gospel, Jesus encourages us to love one another as He has loved us. He tells us in another place in Saint John’s gospel that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for another. Jesus showed this love by His willingness to be humiliated, scourged and crucified for our sins. Fr Emil Kapaun also gives us an example of such love in everything he did, especially in his willingness to sacrifice his comfort, his health and eventually his life for his brother soldiers.

It is precisely this type of love that Christ is calling us to express in our everyday lives. We often think of love merely as a feeling of affection between spouses, family members or friends. It is an emotion or an attachment that is shared and reciprocated. If I love you, I expect you to love me back. We know also that this type of love does not always last. We lose touch with friends or we get into conflicts with them that cause resentment. The minute one person stops loving the other, the relationship comes to an end.

However, this is not the type of love which Jesus is calling us to have. This is not the type of love that sets His disciples apart from other groups. Rather, the love of Jesus is totalling different than the type we sing about in our popular songs or see portrayed in movies. It is not based on feelings, on whether the other person loves us back or on how convenient the relationship is. Instead, Jesus’ love is unconditional, sacrificial and permanent.

First of all, the love of Jesus is unconditional. Our God loves each and every person without distinction. He loves sinners and saints. He loves us when we are far from Him and when we are close to Him. There is no limit to our Heavenly Father’s love. Therefore we, as His children, are called to do the same. We must love those who love us and those who hate us. We must love those whom it is easy to love and those whom it is difficult to love. There is no one who is unlovable for a Christian. Jesus makes it clear to us that we will be judged by how we have loved. That love will be measured not by the person we love the most but by the person we love the least.

Secondly, Jesus’ love is sacrificial. The greatest act of love the world has ever known is Jesus’ death on the cross. He embraced death to save us. He was willing to take on our human weakness so that we could have a new friendship with our Heavenly Father. As followers of Christ, we must sacrifice for others. We must continually put the interests of others before our own. We must go without so that others may have what they need. As Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton put it, “We must live simply so that others may simply live.” It is that type of love, a love that is willing to sacrifice, that is a true reflection of the love of Jesus.

Finally, the love of Jesus is permanent. God never stops loving us. He never grows tired of providing us with what we need. Just so, our love must be permanent and faithful. Love is not based on feelings which change over time. Rather, real love is a decision to give of ourselves to others. It is a commitment to actualize the good of our neighbor and even our enemy no matter what the cost to us personally. Such love does not waver amid hardship, does not wither in the face of criticism and does not get discouraged because of failure. It is like the love of God who holds us in being from the moment of our conception to eternity.

The love of God is demanding. It requires much of us. The only way it is possible to live such a love is to realize that God has loved us first. When we experience the unconditional, sacrificial and permanent love of our Heavenly Father, we will find the strength and inspiration to love in just the same way. It is the love that Jesus showed on the cross. It is the love that Fr Emil Kapaun and countless other saints have shown in their ministries. And it is that love that we are called to show in everything we do.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Pardon Our Appearance

Most of us live in homes that are older and could use a bit of repairs and updating. When we do have the opportunity to spruce up our home by painting the exterior, putting up new cabinets in the kitchen or refinishing the hardwood floors, we feel a good deal of satisfaction. It can feel as though we are living in a new house. The desire to keep our homes clean and up-to-date has made companies like Home Depot and Lowes flourish and programs like "This Old House" and "Generation Renovation" among the most popular on cable television.

The word "renovate" means "to make new". When we renovate our homes or apartments we are trying to make them like new. However, unless we totally tear down and rebuild them, we cannot make our houses brand new. No matter how much work we do, we will, in most cases, still have the same foundation, the same joists and the same studs. And whatever work we do to our homes is never permanent. In a few years, we will have to repaint again, replace the heating system again or fix the appliances.

It is not only our homes that need to be renovated. Every aspect of our lives and of our world needs to be renewed. In our personal lives, our minds and spirits need education and prayer so that we can grow in knowledge and love. Our society is in constant need of reform and change so that it will be more just and peaceful. And our Church is faced with the need of ongoing conversion so that it will be a more effective instrument of Christ's presence and power. The task of being made new never ends in any facet of our lives.

Who is the one who has the power to change us? Who can shake the dust off our old habits? Who can clear out the cobwebs of bitterness and replace the rotted out places in our hearts?

No one but Jesus.

During the Easter season, we continue to read from the book of Revelation. Saint John has a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. The sea, which is the symbol of chaos and violence, is no more. The new earth is a place where people are living in peace and the landscape has been healed of the scars left by pollution. The centerpiece, however, is the new Jerusalem which descends from heaven. This new Jerusalem is the Church purified from all sin and glowing with holiness. Every tear is wiped away. All people lives as sisters and brothers. It is a brand new start for all of God's creation. It is a total renovation from the foundation to the rooftop. And it all stems from the power of God made manifest in Jesus, our Risen Lord. Therefore, he can proclaim from his throne in heaven, "See, I make all things new."

How does Jesus make all things new? Our reading from the gospel of John tells us. It is taken from Jesus' discourse with his disciples during the Last Supper. He is bidding farewell to those he has gathered to continue his work on earth. He tells them that all he has taught them can be summed up in one commandment, "Love one another." The love that Jesus is talking about is no warm feeling of affection that expresses itself in hugs and kisses. Rather he commands them to love one another as he has loved them. How did Jesus show his love? By dying on the cross. Jesus is the only hope of renewal for us individually, for the Church and for the world. And he accomplishes that transformation through a love willing to sacrifice even to the point of death. 

All of us stand here today with some area of our lives that needs healing and renewal. We will encounter continual failure and frustration in facing those problems if we do not bring Jesus and his love into the situation. If our marriages are suffering, the only way to turn them around is by husbands and wives making sacrifices for each other and putting the other's interest before their own. If our parish is to grow and overcome its struggles, it will be by each of us loving and forgiving one another. We must strive to be a community marked by love so that others will know that we are disciples of Jesus and be drawn to worship here. If our world is to enjoy peace and an end to violence, the only way is Jesus' way of love and forgiveness. Until we learn to put aside our pride and forget our grievances we can make no progress toward a world free of poverty and despair. No treaty or government program can replace the change of heart that only Jesus can make happen. Whenever we invite Jesus into a situation and are willing to follow his commandment of self-sacrificing love, then problems begin to turn around, hearts begin to open and real lasting peace can take hold of our lives. 

The home renovations business is a multi-billion dollar industry in today's world. Imagine if we could have the same interest in renewing our families as we have in renovating our homes. Imagine if we could work as hard at repairing broken relationships as we do at repairing our leaky roofs. Imagine if we were as concerned about replacing hate with love and bitterness with forgiveness as we are with replacing our Formica counter tops with granite ones. Then our world would undergo a real and lasting renewal marked by the love of Christ. 

Today is the day to start. It is here that we meet Jesus, the One who makes all things new. He wants to change us. We need only accept his commandment of love and welcome him into our lives. He will waste no time getting to work, and we can begin to see the transformation take place.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Voice Of Our Shepherd

Scientists tell us that babies develop their sense of hearing very early on. Even in the womb, a few months after conception, babies can hear and make out sounds. It is even believed that a baby can recognize his mother's voice while still in the womb. That is why many doctors encourage expectant mothers to talk to their unborn children. We sometimes see mothers rubbing their bellies and singing softly to their child in the womb. All this serves to build up the natural process of bonding that is taking place between mother and child by attuning the child to the voice of his or her mother.

During the first few weeks of the Easter season we have heard much about the sense of sight. Saint John sees the empty tomb and believes. Mary Magdalene meets Jesus in the garden and believes. Jesus shows the apostles the wounds in his hands and side, and they believe. Saint Thomas overcomes his doubts when he finally sees the Risen Lord for himself. It is by seeing Jesus that Mary Magdalene and the apostles come to faith.

Today, however, the focus is on the sense of hearing. Faith comes not only from seeing Jesus, but from hearing his voice. Jesus tells us as much in the gospel when he says, "My sheep hear my voice....I give them eternal life."

Faith which comes through hearing is a very important concept in the New Testament. Only a few believers were privileged to see Jesus with their own eyes. The vast majority of Christians - ourselves included - came to believe through our ears, not our eyes. We heard God's word, it touched our heart and we believed. We are among those whom Jesus called "blessed" because we have believed without seeing. We are the Christians who, like children whose ears are attuned to the voice of their mother in the womb, have recognized the voice of our Good Shepherd, Jesus, and decided to follow him.

During those first few weeks of Easter, when the readings focused on the sense of sight, we discussed how we can still see the Risen Lord, though in a hidden way, through the sacraments. All seven sacraments are real, life-transforming encounters with Jesus. If the sacraments are a way for us to see Jesus, then is there a way that we can hear the Risen Lord speak to us today? Is there a way that we can attune our ears to recognize and respond to the voice of our Good Shepherd?

The answer, of course, is yes! The Risen Lord continues to speak to us, his sheep, through the Bible.

As Catholic Christians we believe that the Bible, though written by men, was inspired by the Holy Spirit to such a degree that we can rightly call God its author. Because it is God's word, it is totally reliable as a source of knowledge of our Heavenly Father. It is a sure way of hearing his voice. When we proclaim the Scriptures together at Mass or when we read them to ourselves in our private prayer, it is God himself who speaks to us. When we approach the Bible with faith that it is God's word, our hearts and lives are changed.

It is for this reason that the reading of Scripture has such a prominent place at every Mass. The Bible is really the first course of this holy meal which Jesus prepares for us every week. It speaks to us of his love and willingness to forgive. It also challenges us to invite him to change those areas of our lives wherein by our actions or attitudes we are not living up to the great commandment of love. Through the Bible, Jesus, our Good Shepherd, continues to lead, nourish and console us, his sheep.

If we are to grow in our ability to recognize the voice of Jesus, we must make time everyday to read and study both the Old and New Testaments. Sometimes we can be intimidated by the Bible because it is so big and so many parts of it are difficult to understand. The best way to approach it is to remember that God has a message for us hidden in those pages. We only need to ask the Holy Spirit to guide us in our reading and to help us to understand it. No one is better at explaining a book than the one who wrote it. Since the Holy Spirit is the author of Scripture, he is the one to go to when we come across a passage which is difficult to understand. He does not want to keep his message of love a secret. So if we are patient and diligent, the meaning will become clearer and clearer with time.

Another helpful way to grow in our knowledge of the Bible is to find books that explain certain facets of Scripture such as the history of the people of Israel and the cultural background of the people of Jesus' time. Such books give us added insights that can take away some of the mystery from the places and peoples mentioned in the Bible and can make it seem less intimidating. There are also many good Catholic resources online that can help us in our study of God's word. As with any study, it takes time, dedication and effort, but the fruit it bears in deepening our faith is rewarding beyond measure.

We often say, "Seeing is believing." But for most of us, it is in hearing that we come to believe. Jesus, our Good Shepherd and Risen Lord, continues to speak to us. We are his lambs, the sheep of his flock. He loves to tell us how much he cares for us, and he longs for us to follow him. Like a child who recognizes her mother's voice even before she is born, we can attune our ears to the gentle whispers of our Good Shepherd by reading his word, the Bible, everyday. Then we will be quick to follow him whenever he calls. And we will be ready when we finally see him face to face at our judgement when he calls to us, "Come, good and faithful servant. Enter the kingdom I have prepared for you from the foundation of the world."

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Making Peace

When those suffering from a terminal illness reach a point where they have accepted that they are dying, one of the first things they want to do is make peace with their loved ones. They make a point of calling them to either ask for forgiveness or to offer it to those who may have hurt them. On the other hand, one of the most painful and haunting experiences we could have is to lose a loved one before we have an opportunity to make peace. The finality of death helps us to appreciate how insignificant our squabbles are. None of us wants to carry the burden of a grudge with us as we prepare to meet our Maker.

We can imagine the distress, then, that Peter must have felt on the day Jesus died. Though he had promised to stand by Jesus no matter what, he denied ever knowing him to the guards who were warming themselves over a charcoal fire. When he learned that Jesus would be condemned to death, he ran and hid out of fear. It must have been eating him up inside that when Jesus needed him most, Peter did not stand by him. What was probably most haunting was the thought that he would never have a chance to tell him how sorry he was and to make peace with him. He thought that he would have to live the rest of his life with the guilt and shame of knowing that he had let Jesus down.

What Peter could not understand at the time was that Good Friday was not the last time he would see Jesus alive. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus would rise again with a new, glorified body. He would appear to the apostles during the course of forty days helping them to understand what the tragic events surrounding his death all meant. And he would give them the same Spirit which raised him from the dead so that they could continue his good works of preaching the gospel, bringing forgiveness to sinners and healing to the sick. Peter would have a chance to see Jesus again and to express his love for him.

Today's reading offers us the last appearance of the Risen Jesus as recorded in the gospel of Saint John. The apostles have left Jerusalem with all its reminders of those last days of Jesus earthly life. They have returned to their hometown, the region of Galilee, where they feel most at home and comfortable. It was at Galilee that the apostles, many of them fishermen, had met Jesus for the first time and had begun to follow him. It was at the shores of the Sea of Galilee that they first witnessed how he touched so many lives with his message of love and forgiveness.

When the apostles recognize him, Jesus is on the shore of the sea preparing breakfast for them. Seeing the charcoal fire Jesus had made must have reminded Peter of how it was against the glow of just such a fire that he had denied knowing him. His heart must have been aching to tell Jesus how sorry he was for abandoning him.

Peter would have his chance. He finally has an opportunity to be alone with Jesus as they walk along the beach after breakfast. It is an idyllic, peaceful scene - the type of scene we would imagine ourselves in if we had a chance to meet Jesus face to face. Just as Peter denied Jesus three times, so Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him. When Peter replies, "Yes, Lord, I love you.", Jesus gives him the mission of feeding or tending his lambs. By professing his love, Peter makes up for his sin and is restored to his dignity as the chief shepherd.

It is interesting that Jesus does not call him by the name he had given him - Peter, which means "rock". Rather he addresses him as "Simon, son of John". The only other time Jesus addresses Peter this way is when he first meets him and calls him to be a disciple. What Jesus is doing is letting Peter know that, though he has failed, he is still called to be a disciple. This is emphasized at the end of their conversation when he says to him, "Follow me." Jesus forgives Peter and restores his status as a disciple based on a simple profession of love.

We tend to associate mercy and forgiveness with the season of Lent. But it is just as fitting for the Easter season. It was for the forgiveness of sins that Jesus died and rose again. When he appeared to the apostles on the night of the resurrection, his first gift to them was the power to forgive sins. All that Jesus did was centered on giving us new life by reconciling us to the Father. And so the sacrament of Reconciliation, or confession, is not just for the Lenten season. Rather, like the other sacraments, it is a real encounter with the Risen Lord. Through confession we walk with Jesus, tell him that we are sorry for abandoning him, and profess our love for him as Peter did. Jesus then pours his forgiveness and mercy out upon us and renews his call to us to follow him as his disciple. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is one of the beautiful ways that we can come into the presence of our Risen Savior during this Easter season and experience the healing power of his mercy just as Peter did at the banks of the Sea of Galilee.

Jesus calls us to his side today. He has prepared a meal for us. It is his very body and blood. We can approach this table with confidence knowing that he has forgiven us. We can approach this table with joy because he is alive. We can go in peace knowing that he will always be by our side.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

God Reveals Himself In Jesus

Does God exist? Does He know me? Is there any way that I can know Him?

Is there a true religion? Does it matter what I believe or don’t believe? Does any of it make any difference?

Is there such a thing as truth at all? How can I know who is telling the truth? Can any of us know what is really true or not?

We live in an age of doubt. No questions are taboo anymore. There are no truths that are not up for grabs. As a society we are increasingly skeptical that we can know anything and even more skeptical that knowing the truth can make a difference. Saint Thomas can be considered the patron saint of our age.

However, as Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ is the Truth. He is God made visible in the flesh. He knows each of us and we can know Him. And even more importantly, He loves us and we can love Him. To a world that distrusts any claims to absolute truth, it is a bold assertion. It may even seem arrogant. However, we are proud to proclaim and live the truth revealed to us in our Lord and God, Jesus Christ.

Nonetheless, our faith in Jesus does not always dispel any doubts we may have. Like Saint Thomas, there are times when it all seems too good to be true and we wonder  whether it is all just a fairy tale. There are times when the other faiths or Christian traditions make us question how we can know which religion is the true one or if there is any true religion. Or the mysteries of our faith like the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist or the teaching of the Trinity that God is one God in three Persons can confuse us and challenge our beliefs. Finally, there are probably no issues more difficult for us to deal with in today’s society than Jesus’ moral teachings about marriage and family life.

It is natural that from time to time we will question our beliefs. In fact, it is a good thing if it leads us to grapple with the issues that are difficult for us, to learn more about them and to come to an understanding about why they are true and important for us to believe as followers of Jesus. Wrestling with difficult questions helps form our conscience and makes us better equipped to explain our faith to others who may themselves have questions.

There are times, however, when doubt can be a negative thing for our spiritual lives. If we give in to our doubts, if we fail to believe that anything is true, or if we tell ourselves that the truth does not matter, then it becomes impossible for us to follow Jesus. Doubt then becomes an excuse not to believe anything. We use it to justify any choices we may make since, if nothing is right, then nothing we do can be wrong. It also kills the life of our mind because, if we do not believe that anything is true, then there is no point in being curious about anything or striving to learn more.

Our doubts, however, can be an opportunity for us to grow in faith. We cannot have the same kind of certainty about the existence of God, about the reality of an afterlife or about the truth of the Catholic faith that we have about mathematical truths. We cannot prove these truths the way we can test scientific theories. There will always be unresolved questions in our minds and mysteries beyond our powers to understand. Faith means giving our lives over to God even though we have questions. Faith means committing ourselves to the good news of Jesus Christ even though we do not fully understand it. Faith means entrusting ourselves to the will of God even though the road ahead is unclear. We do that because Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” We do it also because Saint John tells us that “through this belief [we] may have life in his name.”

The life of Christian faith is nothing more than entrusting ourselves daily to Jesus. Every morning we place our worries into His hands confident that He hears us. Throughout the day we thank Him for every good gift which comes from His love. In every decision we make we seek His will rather than our own confident that He knows best. In other words, despite our questions, despite our doubts, despite our personal weakness and ignorance, we trust God. With that trust comes profound peace.  If there is only one prayer that we make throughout the day, it should be "Jesus, I trust in you."

The American spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, summed up this beautiful truth in the following prayer:

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Trumpeting Christ's Victory

During Easter it is customary to decorate the church with lilies. Just as the poinsettia is considered the official flower of Christmas, so the lily is the official flower of the Easter season. It is not only because of its beauty that this flower has come to be associated with the resurrection of Jesus. Rather, early on, people noticed that this beautiful white flower was shaped much like a trumpet. The lily is meant to serve as a reminder to us that just as a trumpet is sounded to announce the arrival of a king or dignitary, so we must trumpet the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We are not meant to keep the good news of God's victory over sin and death a secret but must proclaim it to everyone we meet.

If we are meant to spread the message of new life in Christ with boldness, why is it that so many of us act more like shrinking violets? We so often find ourselves keeping our faith to ourselves out of fear that we will offend someone or because we doubt that we know enough to express the ancient faith of the Church. Our fears may run even deeper. We might be afraid of being ridiculed by our friends or rejected by those we love. Our doubts may also run deeper. We may wonder whether the good news of Jesus has any relevance to life in the twenty-first century. These emotions and conflicts often keep us from living our faith with the fullness of joy which God intended us to have.

Of course, fear and doubt are nothing new to Christian believers. The followers of Christ have experienced them since the beginning. Even those who saw Jesus with their own eyes and heard the gospel message directly from his lips suffered intense fear and doubt. Today's gospel reading is a reminder of just how true this is.

In today's reading from the gospel of John, it is the evening of the resurrection. The apostles are confused. They learned that the tomb in which Jesus had been buried is now empty, and Mary Magdalene claims that he appeared to her. Peter and John ran out to the tomb to see for themselves, and they found it to be empty just as the women said. John believed, but Peter remained confused and afraid. Now they have barricaded themselves in the room where they were staying. They were afraid that they would be killed just as Jesus was. They were not able to believe in Jesus' resurrection much less celebrate and proclaim it because their hearts were gripped with mortal fear.

The gospel tells us that Jesus appears to them "despite the locked doors". Those doors were bolted fast because of the apostles' fear. The Risen Jesus, however, cannot be locked out by fear, much less by locked doors. Now that he has conquered sin and death, he is the Lord of all. Nothing can hold back his presence or keep him from touching any heart he so wishes to reach. When the apostles recognize that it is truly the Lord - when he shows them his hands and side - their fear turns into joy. He breathes the Holy Spirit upon them to replace their fear with peace and to give them power to forgive sin. By encountering the Risen Lord, the apostles take the first step toward overcoming their paralyzing fear.

The same is true with the problem of doubt. As we all remember, Thomas was not present when Jesus first appeared to the apostles. He refused to believe that Jesus was risen unless he could see and touch him for himself. Again, a week later, the apostles find themselves behind locked doors. This time, however, the doors are locked not just because of fear, but because of doubt. Jesus is not offended by Thomas' lack of faith. Jesus does not refuse to reveal his risen glory to Thomas because of his doubts. Rather, he made a point of reaching out to him though the doors of his heart were bolted by unbelief. It is by having a personal encounter with the Risen Jesus that Thomas is able to overcome his doubts and make one of the most sincere and profound expressions of faith found in the New Testament, "My Lord and my God!"

We see what a transformation takes place in the lives of the apostles in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. They are now fearlessly proclaiming the good news of Jesus' resurrection throughout Jerusalem. Crowds are flocking to hear them just as they did to Jesus. And miraculous healings are taking place, just as they did by the hand of Jesus. The encounter with the Risen Lord has transformed the apostles from men fettered by fear and doubt into men who proclaim with boldness the resurrection of Jesus and who continue his ministry of healing and reconciliation.

The Scriptures make it clear to us that if we find ourselves weighed down by fear and doubt, then we must encounter the Risen Lord. How is that possible so many centuries after he has ascended into heaven? Today's readings again give us more insight into how it is that we may have a personal encounter today with the Risen Lord.

We remember that Jesus makes his first appearance to the apostles on the night of the resurrection, a Sunday. But then Jesus waits a whole week to reveal himself again. He does not appear to them the next day, but waits until the following Sunday to show himself to Thomas. To drive the point home even further, in today's second reading from the book of Revelation, it is on a Sunday, the Lord's day, that John has a vision of the Risen Christ and receives the revelation of all that is to take place. This is to make it clear to us that Sunday is the day when we encounter the Risen Lord, in particular during our celebration of the Eucharist. Therefore, for us who live so many centuries since the death and resurrection of Jesus, it is in this place where we hear the word of God proclaimed and receive the Body and Blood of Jesus that we encounter Christ still alive among us. Though we cannot see him as clearly as the apostles did or put our fingers in his wounds as Thomas did, the encounter with Jesus is just as real and has the same power to dispel our fears and doubts.

So if fear and doubt continue to siphon off our peace and joy, this is the place to bring it. Here we meet Jesus in all his risen glory. Here we exchange the burden of unbelief for the power of faith. It is here that we bloom into believers willing to trumpet the good news of a Savior who has broken down the doors of sin and death. Blessed are we! We have not seen, but we believe and cry out, "My Lord and my God!"

Friday, April 1, 2016

An Event Like No Other In Human History

Something happened that first Easter Sunday morning which had never happened before in the history of the world.

It is true that people had come back from the dead before. The gospels themselves tell us that Jesus raised the daughter of Jairus and Lazarus from the dead. Even in the Old Testament, the prophets Elijah and Elisha restored the lives of several young people. However, they merely regained the physical life they had before. All of them eventually would grow old and succumb to death.

The resurrection of Jesus is totally different. Jesus’ body is not simply resuscitated. His body is not simply returned to the state it was in prior to His death. Rather, He is raised to a new life with an incorruptible body unable to feel pain, suffer the effects of aging or die. It is a body charged with eternal life.

We know this because of the gospel accounts. Jesus’ resurrected body does not have the same physical limitations that our bodies have. He is able to appear wherever and whenever He wants. When the apostles lock themselves in the upper room, Jesus appears to them “despite the closed doors.” He did not need to knock or climb through a window. He simply shows up wherever He wants through the power of His will.

At the same time, we know that He is not a ghost. Though it is no longer subject to space and time, Jesus still has a physical body. Whenever Jesus appears to the apostles, He shows them the wounds in His hands and side. This tells us that the risen body of Jesus is the same body that was nailed to the cross on Good Friday. He even eats a fish. It is also clear that Jesus is not a ghost because the tomb He had been buried in was empty, as is the testimony of all the gospels.

Finally, the resurrection of Jesus differs from any other event in human history because He was raised by God Himself.  No one came and woke Jesus up or used their powers to raise Him. Rather, He was raised up by the power of the Father. In John’s gospel, Jesus tells His disciples: “No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again.”

What does all this mean? It means that Jesus is who He says He is, the Son of God. The One who healed the sick, who calmed the stormy sea, who multiplied loaves and fish and who performed countless other miracles during His earthly life is the same One who rose from the dead. Not only does He have power over nature, sin and sickness but He has power over death itself. Therefore, if we believe in Him and live as He commands, not only can we be assured of the forgiveness of our sins, as Saint Peter promises in today’s first reading, but we can be assured of everlasting life. Just as Jesus’ death on the cross earns for us power over sin so His resurrection earns for us victory over death itself.
Now, this eternal life is not a reality that we have to wait to receive in heaven. It is more than an “after life”. Rather, we have it already through baptism and faith. The new life of the resurrection is already at work in our body and souls. Saint Paul tells us this in today’s second reading: “...your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

How do we experience eternal life during our earthly life? We experience it whenever we receive the grace to forgive someone who has hurt us. When we go out of our comfort zone to feed a hungry person or visit someone in prison it is through the power of the eternal life of Christ within us. When we find the courage to witness to our faith even when we are made fun of because of it, it is a sign that the risen life of Jesus is at work in us. None of these works are possible through our own human powers. However, when God’s Spirit of new life is at work in us, all things become possible. There are no obstacles we cannot overcome and no limitations to what we can achieve.

The Resurrection of Jesus, therefore, makes us a people of hope. There is no doubt that we live in very difficult and dangerous times. Many people have given into despair because they cannot see any possible way that our world can get better. However, when we have faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, we work with untiring hope for a better world. We work with confidence because if God can bring good out of the cross, He can also bring good out of our suffering, out of sickness and out of injustice. He can even bring good out of death. We may not always see the way forward but we know that with God there is always hope.

The Resurrection of Jesus also teaches us that our ultimate destiny is not in this world. No matter how hard we work, no matter how well we plan, we will never feel fulfilled in this life. No matter how much we have there will still be an emptiness within us that can only be filled by God. Our home is in heaven. Like Jesus, at the final judgment, our bodies will also be raised from the dead and united with our souls. It will be a body unable to suffer or to die. This is the hope that is held out to us by our Risen Lord.

And so, the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead makes all the difference in the world. Without it, Jesus would just be another rabble-rouser whom the Romans put to death. Now, because of it, we can proclaim with the apostles that He is Lord and Messiah, our King and Savior. Because of it, we know that we too will share His victory over death if we join His struggle against sin. Hope and joy fills our hearts because Jesus is truly risen.