Monday, May 30, 2016

Celebrating Communion

During his trip to the Holy Land in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI had the opportunity to preside over a first communion Mass in Jordan. Many of the young children were refugees from Iraq. At such a tender age, they already know the ravages of war, the destruction it has wrought in their country and the deaths of many of their family members and friends. Also, as Christians in a predominantly Muslim country, they experience discrimination on a daily basis. But for that hour they felt the joy of receiving the Body of Christ from the hands of the Holy Father.

The Catholic News Service, in reporting the joyous occasion, quoted one young girl as saying, "I'm going to receive my first communion from the Pope. Wow! This is something really amazing. It's a dream come true!" Her brother who was also receiving his first communion told reporters, "Words cannot describe what I am feeling at receiving my first communion from the messenger of God, the messenger of peace."

The enthusiasm of these young people cannot help but remind us of our own first communion. Our parents dressed us in white suits and dresses symbolic of our innocence and purity. Up to that time, we had to sit in the pew while our parents and older brothers and sisters went up to communion. Now we would be able to join them in receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. No matter what problems we may have been facing at the time, each of us felt special for that one day because Jesus, our Lord and Savior, would be entering our bodies and souls for the very first time.

Today is a day for us to renew the innocence and joy of our first holy communion. While every Sunday is a celebration of the Body and Blood of Christ, the Church sets aside this Sunday every year to focus and meditate in a special way on the gift that the Eucharist is to us as individuals and as a believing community. As the young boy who received communion from the Holy Father said so well, words cannot describe the wonderful reality of our God who gives us his very flesh and blood in the form of bread and wine. Since Jesus first instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, as we read in today's gospel, to this very day, the Church has always believed that when the priest prays the words of consecration during Mass, the bread is no longer bread but really becomes the Body of Christ. In the same way, the wine is no longer wine, but the Blood of Christ. What we receive in the Eucharist is no mere symbol, but the real thing. Jesus, the Son of God, in his body, blood, soul and divinity becomes our food. When we say, "Amen", we are affirming that we believe that what we are receiving is Christ himself. In fact, the only words that are fitting in the face of such a mystery are the words, "I believe."

Today's gospel reading gives us the story of the very first communion. At the Last Supper, Jesus gathers his apostles together to celebrate the Passover meal. To commemorate how God delivered their people from slavery in Egypt, Jews have a meal with a roasted lamb, unleavened bread and wine. The blood of the lamb is taken and smeared on the door posts to commemorate how the angel of death passed by the homes of the Hebrew families sparing the lives of their first born sons. The gospel reading of the Last Supper tells us about the bread and the wine, but it doesn't mention that Jesus and the apostles had lamb. That is because Jesus himself was the lamb. He was the one who would be slain and whose blood would deliver us from our slavery to sin. He was the one who would take upon himself the punishment we deserved for our sins.

We recognize this at every Mass when we break the bread which has become Christ's body and say: "Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Grant us peace."

It is important for us to take advantage of this feast to reflect on the great mystery we celebrate every Sunday. It is important for us not to lose the wonder and joy we felt at our first communion when Jesus came to make his home within us. In the face of such a wondrous gift that is ours in the Eucharist, we must strive to keep our hearts innocent and pure so that we can receive Jesus' body and blood worthily. Jesus, the Lamb of God, suffered, died and rose again so that his flesh and blood could be the food for our journey. So then, let us prepare our hearts with joy and humility to receive him so that we can then bring him into a world that is starved for mercy and peace.

Friday, May 27, 2016


It is the most radical idea ever proposed and it has forever changed the history of the world.

It is, namely, the belief we have received from our Jewish brothers and sisters that there is only one God. Whereas Greeks, Romans, Babylonians and Egyptians worshipped many gods, the people of Israel worshipped only one God who was the Creator and Lord of all. This one God was not a part of the universe like the pagan gods but stood apart from it not only bringing it into being but sustaining it in existence. Unlike the Romans who had a god who just ruled the sea and another god who just ruled the sun, the God of Israel was Lord of all, with power over all of nature. He was not created but has always existed from all eternity. With time, the truth of this belief became more evident and, whereas people abandoned the pagan religions of the Greeks and Romans, to this day the God of Israel is worshipped and adored.

Another radical idea was later revealed to the people of Israel - that this one God became man in Jesus Christ. To those who followed Him, it became evident that Jesus was more than a good man, a wise teacher or a powerful prophet. They witnessed His power over nature when He walked on the water and calmed the raging storm. He claimed the power to forgive sins and could even tell what people were thinking. He called God, “Father”, and said that “I and the Father are one.” Finally, His resurrection from the dead convinced them that He truly was the Son of God leading Saint Thomas to cry out, “My Lord and My God.” This belief that Jesus Christ is true God and true man has likewise changed the course of human history, so much so that we mark time by the date of His birth. All of history revolves around the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and it is moving to its ultimate fulfillment when He will come again in glory.

From these radical ideas that there is only one God and that He became man in Jesus Christ follows a third - that God the Father and God the Son dwell within our hearts through the Holy Spirit. In today’s second reading, Saint Paul tells us that “...the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” In His essence, God is love. The love that God the Father has for His only Son is the Holy Spirit who is equally God. He lives in the hearts of all believers teaching us to love. Along with the Father and the Son, He dwells in our souls making us holy. And according to the promise of Jesus in today’s gospel that “...the Spirit of Truth...will guide you to all truth”, He dwells in our minds enlightening us and steering us clear of error and helping us to understand the will of our Heavenly Father.

From early on, it became clear to Christians that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit were all God. Rooted in the faith of the people of Israel, Christians always understood that they were not three gods but one God. However, it took time until this belief could be fully spelled out. It was the early Christian writer Tertullian who first used the word “Trinity” to describe the one God in three persons. Because it is a mystery, it would take many centuries more to find the right words and images to bring this belief into focus. This faith in the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit stands at the center of our Christian belief and practice.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes three important points which help us to clarify and understand what we mean when we profess a belief in one God who is three divine persons.

The first point (CCC 253) is that when we assert our belief in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, we are not saying that we believe in three gods. Rather, the Trinity is one God in three persons. The Catechism goes on to say, “The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire.” That is to say, God the Father is not  partially God but fully God. The same is true of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Each one is God, fully and totally.

The second point (CCC 254) is that, while each being fully God, the persons of the Trinity are distinct from each other. That is to say, while God the Father and God the Son are both God, God the Father is not God the Son and God the Son is not God the Father. They are not separate “modes” or “images” that the one God has used to reveal Himself but real, distinct and separate persons.

The third point (CCC 255) is that we best understand the persons of the Holy Trinity in terms of how they relate to each other. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit dwell in a continual relationship of life-giving love. From all eternity, God the Father gives Himself to God the Son. God the Son receives this love from God the Father. And God the Holy Spirit in a sense is the “breathe” of love which they continually give to and receive from one another. It is this ongoing exchange of love,  which some theologians have referred to as a dance, that makes up the life of the Trinity.

It is easy to get confused trying to put this mystery into words. However, it is the central mystery of our faith and it is important for us to understand it as best we can, though we can never fully grasp it. That is why the Church gives us this celebration every year - to grow deeper in our knowledge of the reality of this God of love. It is not a merely intellectual exercise but an invitation to praise God who is beyond anything we can hope for our imagine. Furthermore, it is an invitation to marvel at the great love of God who not only reveals Himself to us but who draws us into His very self. Through baptism and by the presence of the Holy Spirit within us, we are drawn into this dance which takes place in the Trinity. We are caught up in love of the God we do not see and that love pours out into merciful works to our brothers and sisters whom we do see. All this in the hope that one day we will see God as He is and live forever with Him in heaven.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


Over the centuries, deacons and priests have stood up at their pulpits on Trinity Sunday endeavoring to explain the mystery of the one God in three Persons. After defining the doctrine of the Trinity, they have used every classic example such as the shamrock, the triangle and the three-legged stool to try to clarify it for us. However, inevitably the only conclusion that they could come to was that is a mystery beyond the ability of any of us to explain or understand. Many of us have heard those sermons and gained some clarity about the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Other times we may have ended up more confused than ever. Nonetheless, because of their efforts we learned that God is mystery, and that mystery is important.

We live in a culture which is sorely lacking any sense of mystery. Science has taught us that everything can be boiled down to its physical elements. We believe that any phenomenon we cannot now understand either must have a reasonable, scientific explanation or must be a projection of our imaginations. Because of this lack of a sense of mystery, we come to worship often looking to "get something out of it" rather than to stand in awe of God's presence among his people. Our public debates about the dignity of the human person always revolve around issues of choice, convenience and cost rather than around the unrepeatable and irreducible value of woman and man made in God's image and likeness. We cannot even enjoy a magic show without trying to figure out how the magician is pulling off the illusion. Therefore, we reserve the term, "mystery", for unsolved crimes and curiosities such as Bigfoot and the chupacabras, while any appreciation for the transcendent and the sublime is bled from our vocabulary.

On the other hand, as baptized believers in Christ, our lives are charged with mystery. We recognize it in the wonders of creation. The blue sky arching over us streaked with clouds points to the power and grandeur of the God who made heaven and earth. Browsing through a farmer's market or driving past a cornfield our spirit rejoices in God's bounty and providence. When we see the diversity of peoples, their cultures and languages, we cannot help but ponder the rich creativity of the one God who sustains us in being. The universe is God's handiwork springing forth from his bosom leading us to wonder, to contemplation and to praise. As the first reading from the book of Proverbs tells us, it was all created after the pattern of the Father's wisdom which has also been understood to be the Spirit, the breath of life, and the Son, the Word, Jesus Christ. The beauty of the world and its wonders do not beg from us an explanation, but a response of awe and praise. It calls us to recognize that the Father's creating work did not end on the sixth day, but that along with the Son and the Spirit, he continues to sustain the world in being and to bring forth ever new wonders from his creating hands.

If we stand in wonder of God's creation, how much more do we recognize the mystery of his saving work! The second reading from Paul's letter to the Romans is a celebration of the Father's redeeming work through Christ which is brought to life for us through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. We are not only wonderfully made but generously set free from the rebellion which separates us from our Creator and which introduced death and despair into the world. Not only has the Father desired to give us life and being, he has deigned to draw us into his own life and being, to make us his sons and daughters together with Christ, and to awaken our hearts in love through the Holy Spirit, his breath of life bringing us to new life. Again, it is not something that begs to be understood and explained, but pondered and proclaimed.

The verses of the second reading come at a pivotal time in Paul's letter to the Romans. He spends the first chapters describing what the world is like without Christ. It is a world marked by decadence, headed toward death and so consumed by despair. In the section we read today, Paul explains how different life is when it is redeemed by Christ and marked by the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. It is a life of peace with God, full of confidence and animated by a lively hope. The parallel with our contemporary western culture could not be clearer. It has jettisoned a sense of the mystery of creation to attain a mastery over it. In the meanwhile, despite the technology we have developed and the knowledge we have amassed, the question is never far from our minds: "Is this all there is?" We know in our hearts that we are made for something more than databases, test tubes and spreadsheets. That "something more" is the mystery of the Father, revealed in the Son and made present in the Holy Spirit who gives us peace, confidence and hope. If there is nothing else we as believers can bring to the world, it is a sense of the mystery of the one God in three persons who created the world in all its wonders and who calls us to share the divine life.

The being of God is an unfathomable mystery of three persons pouring themselves out in love for one another throughout all of eternity. Our western mindset makes us want to understand, explain and maybe even defend this dogma of faith. Can we hold off that tendency in favor of pondering it and rejoicing in it? Can we make this solemnity an opportunity to grow in awe of the God who saves and to develop our sense of mystery? Through our worship, can we bring that sense of mystery into a world chilled and calloused by life's cold, hard facts? Most importantly, can we bring that mystery to life by pouring ourselves out for one another in love after the example of our Triune God?

Sunday, May 22, 2016

A God Beyond

The first man to travel into outer space and orbit the earth was the Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin. Besides being a monumental human accomplishment, it was a source of pride for the Russian people to beat the West in sending a manned craft into space. And for the Soviet government, it was an opportunity to promote their atheistic, totalitarian regime. The Soviet premier at the time, Nikita Khrushchev, took the opportunity of his country's achievement to criticize religion by stating, "Yuri Gagarin flew into space and didn't see God there."

Of course, as is so often the case with atheists, Khrushchev's comments show a basic ignorance about God. God does not live in outer space. God is not out in the universe floating around somewhere. Rather, he is outside the universe. No spacecraft could ever travel far enough or fast enough to reach him. God is outside space and time. There is no way for us to get to where God is. God is greater than this vast universe for he created it. 

In fact, if God had not revealed himself first to the Jewish people through the covenant with Abraham and later to the whole world through Jesus Christ, there is no way we could come to a full knowledge of him. Through the wonders of nature we would have some glimpse into his power and wisdom. Through our human ability to love and care for each other, we would have some sense that he is good. But if he had not sent Jesus Christ, we would not know that he is a personal God who knows each of us by name and who wants us to have a relationship with him. And we could never have imagined how limitless his love for us is that he would send his only Son to die for us. It is only through Jesus that we can know God in all his mystery and only by the gift of the Holy Spirit that we can love him in return.

Nothing illustrates this more than the mystery we celebrate today, the mystery of the Holy Trinity. We love and worship one God who is three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Though three persons, they are one God. Though one God, they are three persons. We call it a "mystery" because our human intelligence can never fully understand it. If God had not revealed this truth to us through Jesus and through the Church, we could never have known it. As it is, only when we are in heaven, outside the bounds of space and time, will we glimpse fully the reality of God's mystery.

Because God dwells in mystery outside of the universe, there is no way that our human efforts alone can reach him. Just as there is no spacecraft that can travel to where he dwells, there are no amount of good deeds we could perform to earn our way into heaven. If it were possible to enter heaven simply be being good and not hurting each other, it would not have been necessary for Jesus to have suffered and died on the cross. Salvation is not a result of our efforts or good intentions. Rather it is a gift offered to us out of the love of God who created us to live eternally with him in heaven. 

That is why Saint Paul tells us in today's second reading that we are justified by faith. As he uses the term, justification means that our friendship with God is restored. Sin destroyed our relationship with God, but Jesus restored it by dying on the cross for our sins. It is because of Jesus' effort, not our own, that our relationship with God is restored. For us to be saved, we need to believe not just that God exists, but that he sent his Son to die for us and that our sins are forgiven in his name. We need to have faith. And we have already received that faith through baptism. 

You will notice that I said that our human efforts alone cannot get us to heaven. That is not to say that our efforts have no value or that we should not strive to be good. Rather our efforts assisted by God's grace are pleasing to our heavenly Father. When we add God's love to whatever we do, it has immeasurable worth. The gift of salvation is given to us freely, but we must accept it and put it to use in our lives. We have to strive to be good with the help of God, understanding all the while that even our ability to do good is a gift of God.

Science can never develop a spacecraft capable of reaching God. We could never engineer a computer program capable of unraveling the mystery of a God who is Father, Son and Spirit. No one could ever write a self-help book that could help us once and for all conquer sin. Since we could not travel to God, he traveled to us. In Jesus Christ, God revealed himself to be a Father who created us, a Son who saved us and a Spirit who makes us holy. We do not have to figure it all out or try to understand it. We need only accept the gift and rejoice that our God loves us so much. The mystery comes down to one simple fact - this God who dwells in mystery loves us, and he wants us to love him in return.

Friday, May 20, 2016

A Faith Bigger Than Fear

What holds us back from being fully the person God created us to be? What keeps us from fulfilling all the dreams He has for us? Why do we resist the inspirations He gives us daily to be more generous and loving to those we meet?

The simple answer is fear. Fear holds us back from achieving all the great things God has planned for us. We are afraid of what others think. We do not want to be judged, criticized or ridiculed. We fear failure. We worry about what it will cost us to follow Jesus with all our heart and strength. How will it affect our relationships and jobs? Will others reject us because of our faith? Will we be called “fanatics” or “bigots” because we take God’s word seriously and make it the center of our lives. We also fear being wrong. What if we go all out in following Jesus and it does not end up being worth it? Finally, we can also be afraid that we are not good enough.

Those who followed Jesus during His earthly life knew very well the fears that we experience today. Even though they found the courage to leave everything behind to follow Him, they still experienced doubts, reservations and fears. We know that Judas began to fear that Jesus was not really the Messiah which led to his betrayal. When Jesus was arrested and crucified, the disciples fled in fear that they would be next. Even after Jesus rose from the dead, they remained holed up in the upper room, hiding from the authorities. They were imprisoned and isolated by their fears, unable to proclaim the great wonders they had experienced.

However, all that changed on Pentecost Sunday. The Holy Spirit came rushing down upon the place where they had been staying. A mighty wind shook the building and fire from the sky descended upon them. They were so overcome with God’s presence within them, that they praised Him in full voice. Not able to contain their joy, they spill out into the street below proclaiming the wonders of God to all those who were passing by. They were no longer afraid what people would say about them. They were no longer afraid that they would be arrested and put to death. They were no longer concerned about their lack of talents or education. In fact, they were not thinking about themselves or their fears any more. Rather, they were caught up in the great wonders God had done for them and in His power. Their joy was so great that they could not keep it to themselves.

The Holy Spirit we received at our baptism and who lives in our hearts through faith is the great antidote to our fears. He inspires us to take the focus off ourselves and our limitations and to put it on God and the infinite possibilities He offers us. The Holy Spirit gives us confidence that no matter what situation we may find ourselves in, God will provide us with what we need to not only get through it but to thrive. He fills our innermost being with such a complete and overflowing joy that we do not care what others think anymore. We no longer measure ourselves by what others expect of us but by what God expects of us. Though we may still experience some nagging fears and self-doubts, they will begin to dissipate as we experience God’s power working through our human weakness. We learn to rely more on His inspiration and power and less on ourselves.

It all begins with prayer. The disciples were gathered in prayer with Mary in the upper room when the Holy Spirit descended upon them. In fact, prayer is nothing else than allowing the Holy Spirit to raise our hearts and minds to God. By spending some quiet time in prayer every day, we learn to become attentive to God’s voice speaking to our hearts. As we experience His loving presence, we grow in our ability to trust Him. We let go of the doubts that hold us back and begin to make choices based on what our Heavenly Father has planned for us rather than on what we have planned for ourselves or what others expect of us. Our fears melt away as we experience God’s power taking root in our lives. Our prayer time every day should begin with the words, “Come, Holy Spirit!” Then we will experience our lives being transformed as we learn to follow the Spirit’s lead.

The next important step is rooting out sin in our lives. The Holy Spirit cannot work within us and through us if our heart is enslaved to selfishness, greed or lust. If we have too strong a desire for the comforts and pleasures of this world, then our  hearts cannot be attuned to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We cannot be free to follow the Spirit if we are enslaved to sin. Saint Paul makes this very clear in today’s second reading. After listing sins which he describes as “the works of the flesh”, he tells us, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” The good news is that we do not have to allow our weakness and shame to hold us back. In Jesus, we have the forgiveness of our sins and the power to overcome them. As we allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through us we will also find the strength to conquer our temptations and put our strength into doing good for others rather than indulging our passions.

When Jesus appears to His disciples on the day of His resurrection, He greets them with the words, “Peace”. At the Last Supper, He reassured them that peace would be His lasting gift to them. The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, which Jesus would have used is much richer than our English word. It can also be translated as “health”, “prosperity” and “wholeness.” In essence, peace is what we experience once our fears have been conquered. It is a result of our confidence in God. It is the lingering joy of knowing that we are forgiven and no longer have to be held back by shame or fear. It is the gift God offers us on this Pentecost Sunday as we gather here in prayer.

Come, Holy Spirit! Lead us, your people, to overcome our fears so that we may proclaim the joy of Christ’s resurrection to a world that longs for the hope that only you can give!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Gathered In One Place

When we read the Bible, we have to pay attention to every word, phrase and image. Because Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit, it is charged with the fathomless wisdom of God. The more we read it, the more we ponder every word and sentence, the more we memorize and reflect on it, the deeper we drink of the profound truths of faith. So, when we sit down in our homes to read the Bible or when we hear it proclaimed at Mass, we need to pay attention to words that may even seem to have little to do with the story.

This is particularly true today as we celebrate and reflect on Pentecost - when the Holy Spirit came down upon the Apostles, Mary and the other disciples. The reading from the Acts of the Apostles is full of spiritual riches for us.

Saint Luke tells us that, when the day of Pentecost came, “they were all in one place together.”

What place were they at? They were in the upper room which is also sometimes called “The Cenacle.” The first time we hear about this upper room is at the Last Supper when Jesus ate the passover there with the apostles and gave us the gift of the Eucharist. It was at this upper room that, while Jesus was being crucified and put to death, the disciples hid in fear. After the Resurrection, our Risen Lord would appear to the disciples in this upper room twice. We remember that He appeared to them on Easter Sunday to show them that He was truly alive, however Thomas was not with them. He then appeared the following Sunday when Thomas was with them so that he could see the Risen Lord for himself. Now this upper room would be the place where they would experience the Risen Lord in a new way, through the work of the Holy Spirit.

This upper room, then, was a very blessed place for those who loved Jesus. It was a place of sorrow and fear that became of place of blessing. It was a place from which everything that Jesus did seemed to have been lost which, within a few days, became the pulsing center of the life of the Church He founded. From this place, the message of the Risen Lord and the good works He performed spread out through all the world.

We gather today in a place. This sacred space is a place of blessing. It is the place that God has set aside for us to experience His presence, hear His word and be transformed by the Body and Blood of Jesus. Here we have experienced joy as we baptized babies, received converts to the fullness of faith and celebrated weddings. This is also a place that has known grief and sorrow. It is a place from which we have buried our loved ones, cried over broken relationships and brought our worries for our children to the throne of God. It is a place where we celebrated the mysteries of our faith and lifted up to our Heavenly Father the mysteries of our day-to-day lives. Here we have found healing for our sins through the Sacrament of Penance. And we have experienced the love of God through this loving and accepting community of faith. This is a holy place. God is here and has blessed us.

However, like the upper room, all the blessings that rush down upon us here are not meant to stay here. They are not for us to keep to ourselves the way friends keep secrets. What happens here is not meant to stay here. Rather, the way light from a candle spreads out to fill a room with its brilliance, we are meant to spread the love, joy, peace and truth we experience here to the other places of our lives - to our homes, to our schools, to the marketplace, to the office, to the playground - so that these too may become places where the Risen Lord can be found.

There are many other places in our world. Some of them are marked by hatred and anger. Some are charged with greed and selfishness. Others are places of indifference and apathy. Just as God changed the upper room from a place of sorrow and fear to a place of joy and faith, He wants to change every place in our world from one of hatred to one of love, from one of greed to one of concern for the poor, from one of poverty to one of prosperity. He can transform those places because of the Holy Spirit who renews the face of the earth.  It is up to us in faith to bring the light of the Risen Lord to these desolate places so they can catch on fire with the love of God.

How can we do that? How can we bring the Risen Jesus into a hurting world? Just by being ourselves. If we are filled with the Spirit, then the Spirit will use us to say the words that someone needs to hear. Just as every word of Scripture has meaning because of the Spirit, every word we say, every good deed we perform, every gesture of friendship we offer, can have a transforming effect. If we give ourselves over to the Spirit, then nothing will be impossible for us. If we say “yes” to the promptings of God within us, then He will begin to move in our lives in even the humblest of ways. It is up to all of us to put our gifts and talents at the service of the world by first giving them over to God. As Saint Paul assures us in today’s second reading: “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.”

In this place of blessing we encounter Jesus, the conqueror of sin, suffering and death. From this place, we proclaim by our words and deeds that He is risen and that in Him we find healing and salvation. The Spirit of God, now alive and active in each one of us, spreads out into the world from this place like a river bringing refreshment and new life to those who have lost their way. And we pray that they may also find there way to this sacred space and experience for themselves all the riches to be found in God’s Holy Spirit.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Where The Action Is!

The success of the movie, Avatar,  made 3-D film-making popular again. With 3-D technology, the viewers get the sense that they are in the middle of the action, that it is taking place all around them. It is an effective way of making the on-screen action more exciting for the audience.

Of course, to have the full effect, the viewer must be wearing special 3-D glasses. Without the glasses, one can still follow the plot, but the thrill of the action is not as intense. It is through the glasses that the audience is brought into the middle of the adventure making them part of the full experience.

The gift of the Holy Spirit is much like those special 3-D glasses. We can manage to live without his power and presence in our lives, and sadly many people do. But by doing so, we do not experience life in its fullness. We do not grasp the real purpose for our existence which can only be found in the God who created us in his image and likeness. Without the Holy Spirit we can manage to get by, but there is much that we will miss along the way.

Today we bring the Easter season to a close by celebrating the feast of Pentecost. It is the day when Jesus' promise to his disciples that they would be clothed with power from on high was fulfilled. While they were gathered in prayer with the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit rushed down upon them like a mighty wind. With this gift of power, the Church was born. The good news would now be preached to the ends of the earth.

Like 3-D glasses, the Holy Spirit made the apostles see things differently. Before they were afraid, hiding behind locked doors. Now they boldly enter the streets of Jerusalem proclaiming to all that Jesus is risen. Before they could not understand the meaning of Jesus' suffering and death. Now with the eyes of the Spirit they understand that his death was necessary for the salvation of the world. Before they were simple friends and followers of Jesus. Now, clothed with power from on high, they are the ones who will carry Jesus' teaching to the ends of the earth. With the vision that only the Holy Spirit can give, the apostles see things in a whole new way.

That gift of the Holy Spirit is not just for the apostles. Rather he has been poured out on each of us through baptism and confirmation. We do not look different because of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. However, with the eyes of faith, we know that he is transforming us day by day, leading us from fear into confidence, from ignorance to understanding and from darkness into light. We understand that the Holy Spirit is opening our eyes to the wonders God is working all around us.

How is it that the Holy Spirit helps us to see our lives and our world in a whole new way?

The Spirit helps us to see that we are the temple of God. Jesus tells us that if we believe in him and are obedient to his commandments then the Father and he will come to make their home within us. We are each carrying within us the presence of the Living God. Whenever we enter a church, we genuflect before the tabernacle because it holds Jesus' body. But Jesus is also present in our hearts in just as real a way. In fact, our hearts are the place he most longs to dwell.

Because the Holy Spirit helps us to see that God is present within us, we treat our bodies with care and respect. We dress modestly. We are careful about how much we eat and drink because we want to nourish our bodies and keep them healthy. We keep our thoughts pure and focused on God, and we avoid using foul language because we understand that we are always in the presence of the Most High God. The Holy Spirit helps us to see our dignity as daughters and sons of God.

If through the Holy Spirit, we can see our dignity as children of God, then we will also recognize that same dignity in the people we meet each day. We will treat them with the care and respect they deserve as temples of the Most High God no matter how they look and no matter their social status. If they are hungry, we will feed them. If they are sad, we will cry with them. If they are lonely, we will be their friends. Without the vision that only the Holy Spirit would give, we would see them as strangers. However, with the gift of faith, we see them as brothers and sisters whom we may never abandon.

If we have been living without the presence and power of the Holy Spirit then we have not been seeing things as they are. We have been missing out on all that life has to offer us. This feast day is an opportunity for us to look within and reflect on the powerful gift we received at our baptism and confirmation. It is time to reclaim our dignity as children of God and to welcome the presence of God into our hearts so that we can begin to see ourselves and others differently and to live fully the life that God is calling us to.

If the presence and action of the Holy Spirit still seems hard for us to understand, one good step to take would be to ask our Blessed Mother to pray for us. She knows in a personal way how powerful the Spirit is. It was by that power that she conceived Jesus and the words of the angel, "Nothing is impossible with God", were fulfilled. She was also present on that day when the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles. Because she wants to lead us to Jesus, she will certainly pray that we come to understand the presence of the Spirit in our lives and begin to draw on his power to fight temptation and to do good for those around us.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Come To The Water

We often hear people say that they are “religious but not spiritual”. If we were to ask them what they mean they might say that they pray, however they do not attend religious services or consider themselves a member of an organized religion. Others might say that they try to find God everywhere not just in church. Still others might claim that they try to take what is good and true in any religion and seek to live by it without following just one tradition.

Some people even quote Jesus in support of these views. They point to His criticism of the religious authorities of His day and His condemnation of hypocrisy. Quoting the Sermon on the Mount, they remind us that Jesus said that when we pray we should hide ourselves in our rooms and pray to our Heavenly Father in secret.

However, what we often fail to realize is that Jesus, despite these criticisms, was very religious. The gospels tell us that when He was a child He observed the law of Moses. Mary and Joseph had Him circumcised and presented in the temple in accordance with the law. Jesus was raised to love His Jewish faith and the people of Israel. When He gathered His first disciples, He chose all Jews and urged them to preach only to “the lost sheep of the tribes of Israel”. When He spoke to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, He told her that “salvation comes from the Jews.” Furthermore, even though He sometimes harshly criticized the religious authorities of His day, He told His disciples to obey them.

Finally, as a good Jew, Jesus would observe all the Jewish festivals, traveling to Jerusalem to worship in the temple. In today’s passage from the gospel of Saint John, He is in the holy city to celebrate the Festival of Booths which is sometimes also called the “Festival of Tabernacles.” During this feast, the Jewish people recalled how God provided for His people during their forty year sojourn in the desert toward the promised land.

Saint John tells us that it is the “last and greatest day of the feast.” On that day, the priests would pour water over the altar in the temple to recall how God provided water from the rock for the Israelites to drink when they were thirsty in the desert. Jesus uses the opportunity to tell the crowds that He is the living water come down from heaven. “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink.” Saint John goes on to tell us that Jesus is speaking of the Holy Spirit which He would be pouring out on His people after He was glorified in His death, resurrection and ascension.

We can link the idea of “thirst” to what we today commonly call “being spiritual”. As human beings, there is a thirst within us for something more. We live our day-to-day lives with a feeling of incompleteness. We strive for more. As Christians, we understand that this “thirst” is our desire for God. We were created with a thirst for God that no other person, career or amount of material possessions can  quench. Saint Paul puts it best in today’s second reading where we hear, “we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

Jesus tells us that He is the only one who can meet that deep need we have for communion with God. As the Son of God - true God along with the Father - He alone can reveal to us who God is. When we see and hear Jesus, we see and hear God. When we receive Jesus,  we receive God Himself. Therefore, only He is capable of filling the God sized hole in our heart.

Jesus meets our spiritual need by pouring out His Holy Spirit upon us. Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit is also God Himself. He is God living within us, inspiring us, strengthening us and giving us all we need to lead good and holy lives. When we welcome Him into our hearts, He is poured into our soul like cool, refreshing water to quench our thirst.

That is the spiritual side of the equation. However, there is also a religious side. To receive the gift of the Spirit, we have to be part of a community of believers.

Consider this. How would we know about Jesus if no one had told us about Him. If the apostles decided that they would just be “spiritual and not religious” they would not have bothered to write the New Testament and pass on Jesus’ teaching to us. Much less would they have given their lives to establish churches throughout the Roman empire. If they had not, by the power of the Spirit, spread the good news, the story of Jesus would have died with them. Instead, they understood that to foster the life of the Spirit within them, they had to observe some religious practices, set down some moral rules and establish some structure to ensure that the saving message of Jesus would be carried on through the centuries.

It is in our nature as human beings to be spiritual. Because we are created in the image and likeness of God we seek truth, beauty and goodness. Because God has made us to be in a relationship with Him, we thirst for friendship with Him. However, because we are human beings, we also need religion to teach us who God is and to lead us to Him. We need someone to baptize us, confirm us and preach the good news to us so that we can receive the Holy Spirit, the river of life-giving water we long for.

Tonight, the Feast of Pentecost, we celebrate that the promised gift of the Holy Spirit has been poured out on us in abundance. God has provided for us in our weakness. He has shown us the way home and supplied everything we need to get there. His Spirit within us leads us to believe that there is salvation in no other name than in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and that we are to follow Him along with our brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church. For all these gifts, we rejoice and are filled with zeal to proclaim this truth to others so that they may join us in celebrating the love of our Heavenly Father.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

A Good And Just Judge

We all know how the Bible begins. The first words are “in the beginning…” and from there follows the story of Creation. From God’s first command, “Let there be light”, the world springs into being.

However, we might not be as familiar with how the Bible ends. If not, today’s second reading tells us since it proclaims to us the very last verses of the very last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation. In it, Jesus promises us that He will come again. The same one who came down from heaven to save us, rose from the dead and has now ascended to the right hand of the Father will return. As we hear at  the beginning of the reading. Jesus says, “Behold, I am coming soon” and later on He repeats the promise, “Yes, I am coming soon.”

The Bible ends with a promise - Jesus will came again to reveal Himself as the Lord of all. Since the first day of creation, God’s presence among us has been hidden. But, when the earth comes to an end, all people will come to know that God exists, that He loves us and that He has saved us through His Son, Jesus Christ. Coming down from heaven on the clouds with glory, it will be clear to all what the truth is. There will be no more room for doubt.

The reading from the Book of Revelation also reveals what will happen when Jesus comes again, “I bring with me the recompense I will give to each according to his deeds.” In other words, as we profess in the Creed, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” Before bringing all time and history to its fulfillment, Jesus will call each one of us to stand before Him and give an account of our lives.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “When he comes at the end of time to judge the living and the dead, the glorious Christ will reveal the secret disposition of hearts and will render to each man according to his works and according to his acceptance or refusal of grace” (CCC 682).

Hearing these words, our first instinct might be to feel afraid. And that is an appropriate reaction. None of us is perfect. All of us have sinned. We work hard to hide our faults and weaknesses from each other and so it is frightening to think that  they will one day all be revealed.

Jesus is a good and just judge. As such, He loves the truth and, because He loves us, He will never lie to us. When we stand before Him, He will examine our hearts and be honest with us about how we have failed. Like a doctor who honestly and thoroughly assesses the health of our bodies, Jesus will honestly and thoroughly judge the goodness or wickedness of our souls.

Therefore, we should live with an awareness that one day we will be judged. Imagine how different our lives would be if before every decision we asked ourselves, “How would I explain this action to Jesus? Would I be able to stand tall before Him or would I be left having to make excuses for myself?” How much more good would we accomplish if the first question we asked ourselves was not “What do I feel like doing?” but rather “What does God want me to do?”

At the same time, we should be aware how Jesus is going to judge us. What will He be looking for when He examines our souls? In the gospel of Matthew, we read the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, when Jesus says, “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me.” When we stand before Jesus in all His glory, He will be looking to see how mercifully we treated each other.
Saint James tells us, “Always speak and act as men destined for judgment under the law of freedom. Merciless is the judgment on the man who has not shown mercy; but mercy triumphs over judgment” (Jas 2:12-13).

If we want Jesus to be merciful when He judges us, then we must show mercy to one another. That means forgiving one another readily. If we hold grudges and refuse to forgive, Jesus will not forgive us. As He taught us in the Lord’s prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It also means practicing the works of mercy. When we feed the hungry and visit the sick, we are feeding and visiting Jesus, and He will not forget it when we stand before Him. All those we have shown kindness to will stand by our side to witness to Jesus to the love we have shown them.

While it is natural for us to feel some fear at the thought of standing before the judgment seat of Christ, we have some reason for confidence - not in ourselves but in the love of Jesus. The same Jesus we will stand before loved us enough to die on the cross for our sins. There are not enough good deeds we can do in this life to balance out the sins we have committed or to earn us a place in heaven. Jesus did that for us on the cross. He does not want to belittle us or humiliate us. Rather, by showing us our true selves in judgment, He wants us to realize how much we need Him so that we will be able to accept His mercy and forgiveness.

In today’s gospel, we hear Jesus’ prayer to the Father. In it He says, “Father, they are your gift to me.” Imagine that - Jesus considers you and me to be a gift to Him! Then He goes on to say, “I wish that where I am they also may be with me.” Jesus’ deep desire is that we be with Him in Heaven. This should give us great confidence and an unshakeable hope. It should also motivate us to practice mercy so that, when we do stand before Him, we can hope to receive mercy in return from our Good and Just Judge, Jesus Christ, when He returns in glory. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Prayer Changes Us

Joanne remembers it as if it were just yesterday.

When she was fifteen years old, her grandparents sat her down and told her that her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer and that the prognosis was not good. She refused to believe it. Bursting out in tears, she yelled at her grandparents, “It’s not true! You’re lying!” Not able to deal with the flood of emotions, she ran out of the house into the woods to be alone.

After an hour or so, as she was able to come to grips with the terrible news and compose herself, she had the idea that she would pray for her mother. She believed that God answered prayers and, surely, he would answer the prayer of a young girl who was about to lose her mother. So she knelt down in the grass, bowed her head and asked God earnestly to heal her mother. When a feeling of peace came over her, she understood it to mean that God had heard her and would heal her mother.

She rushed home and found her mother sitting in the living room waiting for her. They hugged each other and sobbed for what seemed like another hour. After she had a chance to compose herself again, Joanne said to her mother, “Don’t worry, Momma. Everything is going to be alright. I prayed for you and God will heal you, I know it!”

Her mother sat her down on the couch next to her, held her hands and looked into her tear-filled eyes, saying, “Look, honey, it is okay. We need to trust God. If he allowed this to happen, we have to believe that He will make everything turn out okay. We have to accept it and trust that it is for the best.”

“No, no, no,” Joanne screamed out, “I can’t lose you!” and she ran back into her room, slammed the door shut behind her and refused to come out.

Over the next few weeks, Joanne in her prayers would yell at God, telling Him she hated Him for taking her mother away from her. She told herself she would never accept it and never forgive God. Even when she was with her mother, she would only cross her arms tight around her chest and refuse to talk.

With time, however, she began to notice how different her mother’s attitude was. Though she was the one who was suffering and facing death, she always consoled those who came to visit her. She always thanked them for their prayers and told them to trust God. Watching her mother face her illness with so much courage helped Joanne to see how selfish she was being. She had only thought of herself and how her mother’s illness would affect her. She was not thinking of what her mother, father and grandparents were going through.

So she knelt down to pray again, asking God to forgive her for the way she acted and to give her the ability to accept whatever may happen. That feeling of peace she had experienced in the woods came over her again and she went to tell her mother what had happened. She told Joanne that she had been praying for her to accept whatever God wanted for them.

The weeks that followed were still difficult as Joanne’s mother grew sicker and finally died. She missed her mother terribly and still at times would feel angry that she had to lose her at such a young age. But, underneath it all, that sense of peace she felt when she finally accepted God’s will, remained with her and carried her through it all.

We often think of prayer as a way to change God’s mind. If we pray hard enough, if we promise to be good, then we can get our Heavenly Father to do us a favor. But that is not at all how prayer works. Prayer is not about changing God’s mind. It is about changing our mind. Prayer helps us to understand God’s will and to accept it. Prayer helps us to see the world as God sees it, to love others as God loves them and to make choices that please our Heavenly Father.

This was the lesson Joanne learned when she struggled to accept her mother’s cancer. It is the lesson Jesus taught us during His agony in the garden when he prayed, “Not my will but yours be done.” By accepting and living out God’s will in our daily lives, we fulfill the prayer of Jesus that we heard in today’s gospel, “[May] they be one as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one....”

This does not mean that we do not bring our needs to God in prayer. Our Heavenly Father wants us to ask Him for what we need. When our family or friends are sick we should ask God to comfort and heal them. When we are struggling to pay our bills or find ourselves out of work, we should ask our Heavenly Father to provide for us. No matter what difficulties we are facing, God wants us to ask Him for what we need. At the same time, we have to bring those petitions to Him trusting that He knows what is best for us and that, no matter what happens, we will trust Him. When we pray that way - not trying to change God’s mind but open to having our minds changed - we will experience profound peace no matter what challenges life may have in store for us.

When we pray in such a way, not only will we experience peace but we will also receive the power to forgive. Joanne was able to forgive God eventually for her mother’s death. Jesus was able to forgive those who crucified Him because of His trust in the Father’s will. And Saint Stephen in today’s first reading also forgave those who stoned Him because He trusted in God’s love for Him. As we come to grips with our Heavenly Father’s will through prayer we also will find ourselves letting go of the bitterness of the past.

We gather here today to pray as Jesus taught us. We are here not to change God but to experience a change of mind and heart for ourselves. We are here to find the wisdom to discover God’s will and the courage to put it into practice. In such a way, we can bring peace and forgiveness to a world torn apart by pride and strife.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Jesus' Soliloquoy

Without a doubt, the greatest writer in the English language is Shakespeare. Though he composed many sonnets, he is best known for his plays. The dramas he wrote for the stage all have a distinctive feature, a literary device called the "soliloquy". The stage darkens, and a spotlight draws our attention to the main character who addresses a monologue to the audience. The best known of Shakespeare's soliloquies is the one delivered by Hamlet which starts off with the words, "'To be or not to be?'" Shakespeare uses the soliloquy to give the audience insight into what the main characters are thinking and into the emotions which are driving their actions.

If the gospel of Saint John were a Shakespearean play, the passage we heard proclaimed today would be one of its soliloquies. We are given a glimpse into the mind and heart of Jesus as he speaks intimately in prayer with his heavenly Father. Through his words, we are given insight into what is important to him and what he cares about.

Whom is Jesus praying for as he lifts his hands to heaven? He is praying for those who will believe because of the testimony of his disciples. He is praying for us.

This prayer takes place after the Last Supper. Before he faces his trial and execution, we who will come to believe in him are on his mind. It is natural that he would be thinking of us at such a time because it would be for our sake that he would endure the tortures of the cross.

And what is Jesus praying for? He is asking his heavenly Father that we be "one". Our Lord wants all believers to enjoy unity through love. This unity is not a matter of dressing alike, sharing the same taste in music or liking the same foods. Rather it is a matter of sharing the same beliefs and living according to the same moral code. It is a matter, ultimately, of loving one another as Jesus has loved us. Jesus wants us to have unity so that others may also come to believe that he is Lord and that he died to save them.

Throughout the Easter season our first readings have come from the Acts of the Apostles which chronicles the lives of the apostles and their first followers. We are told that the early Christians were one in mind and heart. They shared what they had with one another so that no one suffered want. It was because of the love they showed one another - their unity - that they were able to draw others to join them as believers.

In our day there are many who are skeptical about the good news of Jesus. It is not because they do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God or that they reject the Church's teaching. Rather, many people stay away because they do not see us acting with love toward one another. They see the pettiness and bickering that so often goes on and get turned off. We might not even be aware that we are doing it much of the time, but people notice, and they stay far away because of it. 

If we are going to be a place where people can encounter the Risen Christ, then we must demonstrate a unity based in love. What are some of the ways that we, the ones who have come to believe in Jesus, make his prayer for unity among believers a reality?  

Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles gives us a clue. It is the story of Saint Stephen, the first to give his life for the faith. He is dragged outside the city walls and stoned to death. Yet, with his dying breath, he prays that God will forgive those who have killed him. If Stephen, like Jesus, can forgive those who killed him, what right do we have to not forgive those who have hurt us. If we are carrying around bitterness because someone has offended us or hurt our feelings, then we cannot be filled with the Spirit of Christ who commands us to love our enemies. If our minds are constantly going over the wrongs others have committed against us, then we cannot radiate the love of God whose sun shines on the good and the wicked alike. And so, the first step toward answering Jesus' prayer for unity among us is that we must forgive one another from the heart.

The second step toward becoming a more loving community is for each of us to make a commitment to not say a negative word about another and to avoid gossip at all costs. Few things are more painful than learning that someone you worship with on Sunday is spreading rumors about you on Monday. Few things devastate the unity of a Christian community more quickly than cliques of parishioners each talking badly about the other. Even when our criticisms are true, it is best that we address them with the person face to face or keep them to ourselves. None of us is perfect, and we would all prefer that our good qualities be noticed and our not-so-good qualities be overlooked. We should treat each other in just that way remembering that the reason we are here in the first place is to put our faith into action through love so that the good news of Jesus may spread far and wide.

Jesus did not only pray for us at the Last Supper. He continues to intercede for us in heaven at the right hand of the Father. His prayer continues to be that we be united in mind and heart. Jesus' will is always done. If he is praying that we be united in love, then it will happen. We have to cooperate with him, however, by forgiving one another sincerely and by endeavoring never to say an unkind word about one another. He left us the sacrament of his Body and Blood, a sacrament we call "Holy Communion", so that we can be in communion not only with him but with one another. We who share the one bread are one in Christ. As we draw closer to Jesus, we draw closer to one another. By the love we radiant, more and more people will be drawn to this place, and they too will come to believe that Jesus is Lord, and that he will come again.