Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Be Like Don

Don was only in his early 40’s when he experienced a brush with death that would change his life forever.

When summer had ended, Don noticed himself feeling more fatigued and run down than usual. He barely had energy to get through the day at work. At first he chalked it up to getting older and tried to fight his way through it. However, when one morning he could not get himself out of bed, he knew that something more was going on.

His doctor sent him to have some blood work done as part of a total physical examination. When the results came back, the doctor called him and told him to go immediately to the emergency department. The tests revealed that he had contracted a rare virus that is usually transmitted by a mosquito bite. Within just two days he was in a coma and close to kidney failure.

Luckily, a specialist was contacted in time to help reverse the effects of the virus and bring Don out of the coma. However, it rattled him to learn how close to death he was. He spent his life always thinking he had plenty of time to realize all his hopes and dreams for the future. He took it for granted that he would live many more years. Now it became clear to him that the future is not promised to us and that the present is a gift to be treasured and taken advantage of.

Feeling that he has been given a second chance, Don tries to seize each day and relish every opportunity as a special blessing. He makes the time to spend with his family and plans more vacation time than he had allowed himself before. The petty problems that used to occupy his mind and fill him with anxiety no longer bother him. He lives with a fresh perspective on the beauty of creation and the gift his existence is.

Most especially, Don’s experience rekindled his faith and his relationship with God. The experience of his mortality showed him just how unprepared he was to meet his Creator. The words of today’s gospel became very real to him: “So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” After he awoke from his coma, he asked to see a priest so that he could confess his sins. It had been so long that he could not even remember the prayers, but he knew he could not put it off any longer. He knew that the first step he needed to take to reform his life was to get right with God.

Since then, Don has been attending Mass and praying daily. He looked for ways to get involved in his parish and share his story especially with young people. Knowing the joy and peace that comes with a deep, personal relationship with God, he wonders why he ever waited so long to turn to the Lord and why it took something as drastic as a life-threatening illness to wake him up. Most especially, he wants others to learn from his experience not to take their lives for granted but to savor every moment as a gift from God.

Don’s experience can resonate with each one of us. How many of us have been missing out on all that life has to offer us because we have been taking it all for granted? How many of us have been putting off deepening our relationship with the Lord because we think we have plenty of time? How many of us have failed to grasp the grace in every moment of our existence because we have been too preoccupied with things that do not matter?

In today’s second reading, Saint Paul urges us to snap out of it and wake up to all that God is offering us - “You know the time; it is the hour now for you to wake from sleep.” Tomorrow is not promised to us. We do not know how much time we have. Today is the day to make a decision to live for our Lord. We cannot put it off any longer.

At this Mass we celebrate the First Sunday of Advent. It marks the beginning of our four week preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth on Christmas day. As the days grow shorter and the night gets darker, it is a time for us to reflect on the shortness of our existence. None of us is adding any days to his or her life. We are coming closer to the day when we will stand before our Creator and give an account of how we used the time He allotted for us. These weeks offer us the opportunity to examine our conscience, to see where we need to make a change and to commit ourselves to seeking God’s forgiveness and the grace to make amends. Let us seize this opportunity! For some of us, this could possibly be our last Christmas. Let us no longer take for granted God’s gifts including our families and loved ones and put our energies toward the things that really matter.

If we do make those changes, I suspect that we will have the same reaction Don did and wonder why we waited so long to finally enjoy all the gifts that God has given us.

God created each of us for a purpose - to know, love and serve Him in this life and to praise Him forever in the life to come. He has given us a certain span of days, the number of which is only known to Him. Let us live each day for His glory taking joy in all His gifts. Let us stop taking for granted all we have and start really enjoying what He has given us. And let us prepare ourselves by confessing our sins, amending our lives and seeking our Lord in prayer. Then, this Christmas, Christ can be born in our hearts once again.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Running Out Of Time

Before a football team signs a new player, they spend hours scouting his performance on the field. They want to see not only if he can make plays, but whether he works hard at practice and how willing he is to listen to the coach. Not only are the player’s skills important but also his character. And so, not only do they monitor his performance on the field, but they investigate what he does with his free time. When he is not at practice or at the game, is he studying and spending time with his family? Or is he going to parties and getting himself into trouble? How a player spends his free time goes a long way in revealing what type of person he is.

For most of us, the most precious commodity we have is time. We are generally much more willing to give money than volunteer our time. How we spend our time reveals a great deal about what is important to us and what type of people we are.

Looking back on this past week, how have we spent our time? When we were not working or at school, what did we choose to do with our free time? How much of it did we spend in front of the TV? How much of it did we spend with our families? How much of it did we spend with someone who needed our help? And how much of it did we spend in prayer?

The scripture readings we have heard remind us that our time is valuable and that it is short.

Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans urges us to recognize that the day of our salvation is on the horizon. It is closer now than it was yesterday. If we have been putting off the changes we need to make in our lives because we think we have plenty of time, then we are mistaken. Now is the time to take seriously the commitment we made at our baptism to reject sin and to walk with Jesus. We cannot afford to put it off any longer. Saint Paul tells us that the alarm clock is ringing. It is time to wake up to the fullness of life that Jesus is offering us.

What needs to change in our lives? What have we been putting off doing because we think we have plenty of time? Who in our lives do we need to ask forgiveness of and be reconciled with? Who have we been planning to call or visit but just have not made the time for? What are we waiting for? There is no better day than today to begin reaching out to those who need our love.

If there is one thing you and I put off doing perhaps more than any other it is going to confession. We have plenty of excuses for waiting another week or two before going. What we are really doing is depriving ourselves of all the rich graces that come when we accept God’s pardon and mercy. We are keeping ourselves from experiencing the healing that comes from celebrating His unconditional love for us. In these weeks of preparation for the birth of Jesus, let that be our first step toward making the changes that need to be made in our lives. We will never regret making the time to let Jesus free our hearts from the burden of shame and sin we carry.

Another important question to ask ourselves is, how much time do we spend dwelling on past regrets or worrying about what the future holds?  The past is gone. We can never get it back. And the future is out of our hands. While we have to plan for it, so much can change between now and tomorrow. We really only have today. It is right now that Jesus meets us with the offer of a new and fuller life. He is offering to provide us with the bread we need this day. While we need to be thankful for all the blessings we have received in the past,  we must also reach our hands out to the blessings that are being offered to us today. We must forgive ourselves for the foolish choices we made yesterday and trust that God will give us the wisdom to make better choices today.

Of all God’s blessings, time is among the most precious. We cannot know how much time we have left, but each of us has today and each of us has now. We are especially blessed here and now to be gathered together with other believers to hear God’s word and receive the supreme gift of love, the Body and Blood of Jesus. May our sinfulness be a thing of the past and our present be an encounter with the life-changing love of God. Let us use the time we have left in prayer and in good works so that, when Christ does come to meet us, He may find us ready to welcome Him with expectant faith.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Thief Who Stove Heaven

He has been called “the thief who stole Paradise.”

The good thief, as he has also been called, was one of the criminals crucified with Jesus. Since crucifixion was reserved for the worst offenders such as murders or terrorists, we know that he must have been more than just a simple thief. The gospels do not tell us his name, but the tradition has referred to him as Saint Dismas. He has been invoked to give hope to us that no matter what our sins may be, we can always turn to Jesus and expect to find mercy and forgiveness.

In Saint Matthew’s gospel, we are told that both criminals condemned with Jesus began mocking him along with the religious leaders and soldiers. However, something happened to the good thief. Something changed Saint Dismas? What could it have been?

We know that the good thief must have been a hardened criminal. During his infamous career, he would have known many other lawbreakers like himself. As he looked upon Jesus, he must have known that He was different. Unlike the felons Saint Dismas knew, Jesus did not curse, did not protest His innocence and did not show disdain or hate for those who condemned Him. The good thief must have known in his heart that Jesus was no criminal and did not deserve to be put to death.

The turning point for Saint Dismas must have been when, in the height of agony, Jesus cried out from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” An innocent man, put to death unjustly and subjected to the cruelest of tortures, forgives those who persecute Him. The good thief lived in a world that thrived on violence and revenge. Forgiveness was a concept He could not grasp. In his mind, it was for the weak and the powerless. But now He sees a man forgiving others out of love. Maybe Saint Dismas had never been shown love by those around him. Now he was seeing a divine love capable of embracing the worst of sinners - those who would put the Son of God to death.

Seeing Jesus willingness to forgive must have given the good thief great confidence. “If He can forgive His persecutors, then He can forgive me.” Summoning whatever strength was left in his crucified body, he turns to Jesus and cries out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he hears the words that all of us would also rejoice to hear, “ you will be with me in Paradise.”

Jesus is a King who conquers hearts not through violence but through love. His strategy is to offer mercy and forgiveness rather than condemnation. Our Lord longs for us to love Him rather than fear Him. He wants us to run to Him rather than run from Him. He desires to comfort us rather than judge us. Now matter how great our sins may be, no matter how far we may have drifted from the path that God would have us walk, we can always come back to Jesus. We can always be forgiven. We can always change.

It is natural for us to be skeptical when we hear that prisoners have “found Jesus.” We cannot help but wonder whether their sudden conversion is just a ploy to get sympathy from judges and juries. However, the experience of the good thief may challenge us to reconsider our attitudes. Could it be that because murderers, thieves and sex offenders are rejected by society and held in scorn that they have no one else to turn to except God? Could it be that because their crimes are so savage and brutal that any notion that they could be forgiven melts their hearts? As Jesus tells us, “those who have been forgiven much, love much.”

Furthermore, if we claim that we are followers of Christ, if we want a share in His Kingdom, then do we not have to follow His example of forgiveness? If we want to spread His Kingdom, then will it not be by our willingness to extend a hand of friendship, comfort and support even to the worst of people?

Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has given us so many wonderful images of this love of Jesus that goes out to sinners. One of the most beautiful was on Holy Thursday when he celebrated Mass at the Casa del Marmo youth penitentiary in Rome. With tender love and humility, he washed the feet of the young offenders offering them mercy as Jesus did to the good thief on the cross. A Vatican spokesperson commenting on the event told BBC news, “It is a gesture of humility and service....It teaches that liberation and new life are won not in presiding over multitudes from royal thrones...but by walking with the lowly and poor and serving them as a foot-washer along the journey.”

If we are to have a share in Jesus’ Kingdom, if we are to join Him one day in Paradise, we have to show the same love, forgiveness and mercy to everyone without exception.

Like the good thief, it begins with our acknowledging our sinfulness before the cross of Jesus. All of us have fallen short of the glory of God. None of us is the person God dreamed we could be when He created us. We allow our hearts to be hardened by bitterness, we allow our relationships to be corrupted by selfishness and we allow our choices to be determined by narrow self-interest. If we cannot recognize our own sinfulness, then we will be like the thief who mocks Jesus because he does not believe he deserves to be condemned. On the other hand, if we admit our need for forgiveness, then we will not be willing to offer it to others.

Jesus is a King who offers love and mercy to us, especially to the most hardened of sinners. The greater our sins are, the greater our right to turn to Him. It was for sinners that Christ came to the world and unless we go to Him as sinners we cannot expect to receive anything from Him. At the same time, He expects us to extend that mercy to everyone, especially to the greatest of sinners. Then His Kingdom will be a reality on earth and our hope for Paradise.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Christ The King Of The Universe

In 2010, the world was captivated by the ordeal of thirty-three miners in Chile. On August 5, a shaft at the San Jose copper and gold mine in Chile’s Atacama Desert collapsed trapping the thirty-three men two thousand feet below the earth. At first they had no idea whether anyone knew they were down there. Somehow they were able to get word to the surface that they were alive. However, it was expected to take over three months to rescue them. No one had survived underground for that long a period. It was an extremely dire situation.

They could have despaired and given up. They could have turned against each other and blamed each other for their situation. Instead, they turned to their faith to sustain them. They built a shrine and prayed together. Against all odds, they believed that God would make a way for them.

Finally, last month, after sixty-nine days underground, a shaft was completed capable of raising them to the surface. As they came out one by one, they praised God for saving them. One of the men, Jimmy Sanchez, wrote in a letter that there were not thirty-three men trapped in the mine but thirty-four. God had been down there with them. They knew they were not alone but that God was sharing the ordeal with them. That knowledge gave them the hope that they would be saved and kept them from succumbing to fear and despair.

Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. As creator of the universe, all things belong to Christ. Most earthly kings and rulers live in palaces separated from the people by stone walls and fortified towers. They do not share the life of the people and are for the most part unaware of their struggles and fears. Jesus is not such a king. He came down from heaven taking on a body so that He could know what it was to be human. Because of this, He understands our weakness and temptations. He knows what it is like to work long hours and to feel the loneliness of being separated from his family. He has felt the pain of being ridiculed and humiliated. Because of that, we can turn to Him when we are in distress and be assured that He is standing by our side carrying us through whatever difficulties we are facing. We are not alone. Jesus is with us.

The greatest example of Jesus’ love and His willingness to share our human life is His death on the cross. Though He was the most powerful man to ever walk the earth, He allowed Himself to be crucified between two thieves. He did this out of love for us. He wanted to take upon Himself the punishment for our sinfulness. He wanted us to understand the lengths He would go to so that we could be redeemed and saved. That is the kind of king Jesus is. The kind of king who shares the life of His people even to the point of death. Because of this, Jesus’ throne is not made of marble or granite. Rather, Jesus’ throne is the cross.

Whenever there is a tragedy in our world whether it was the tsunami in Southeast Asia or the earthquake in Haiti, it is natural for us to ask “Where is God?” When we see children suffering and malnourished we cannot help by wonder how God can allow it. Because of such questions, many have wondered whether God exists at all or, if He does exist, they wonder whether He really cares. When we see the reality of evil in our world, wars, hatred and the random killing of innocent life, we can wonder whether Jesus’ death on the cross made any difference.

Pope Benedict XVI in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, looked at this question.  The world asks, "What difference did Jesus make?" Pope Benedict answers, "He brought God." Jesus ended God's seeming silence, indifference and impotence before the reality of evil, suffering and death. In Jesus, we can no longer say that God does not know what death is and, more importantly, that He does not care. Jesus’ death on the cross revealed a God who stands with us when we are afraid and is at our side while we are suffering.

We judge our rulers and leaders by the results they get for us. So it is natural that the world continues to look at Jesus and require from Him a salvation that can be measured in economic or political terms - a salvation that can be put to some use. But that is not why Jesus died. He did not put Himself through the ordeal of the cross so that we could have more prosperity or more power. He did it simply so that we could know God and love Him more.

If all we want out of life is material prosperity, then, when problems arise, we will act like the thief on the cross who ridiculed Jesus saying, “If you are the Messiah, save yourself and save us!” But if our greatest desire in life is to love and serve God, then we will rejoice when we are faced with difficulties because we will realize that at that moment God is with us. Like the good thief, we will want nothing more than to know that one day we will be with Jesus in paradise.

No one needs to suffer alone. Even if everyone abandons us, God stands by our side. Like our breath and our heart beat, He is always at work even when we are unaware of it. Our King Jesus calls us out of the darkness of fear and despair into the bright light of faith and hope. All we have to do is give Him our lives, and He will change them.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Blazing Like An Oven

There are many unpleasant facts of life we try to avoid thinking or talking about. First among these is our own death. Our life is precious, and we cannot bear the thought of losing it. Nonetheless it is a reality that we need to be aware of and come to terms with. As unpleasant as it may be to think about, it is unavoidable.

Every year in November with the days growing darker and winter fast approaching, we as a Church reflect upon some disturbing and sometimes terrifying realities - our death and the end of the world.

It is one of the articles of faith which we profess boldly in the creed: Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. All of human history is building up to the moment when Jesus will be revealed as the Son of God. At that point, everyone will have to acknowledge Him as Lord and Savior. We will all bend the knee before the One who comes to bring justice to the earth. For those of us who have already welcomed his grace into our hearts and proclaimed Him as Lord of our lives it will be a joyful day. But for those who have denied Him and lived only for this world and its pleasures, the revelation of God’s justice will be painful and humiliating.

Our first reading comes from the book of the prophet Malachi. He uses the image of fire to describe the coming day of the Lord saying that it will “blaze like an oven”. Fire can be a very useful thing for us. We can use it for light, for warmth or to cook our food. However, if we fail to respect its power, that same fire can also burn us and destroy our property. In the same way, if we love God and live according to His word, His coming will be a fire that brings us light and warmth. However, if we have not respected Him and have not loved our neighbor, His coming will burn us and destroy all that we thought was important.

And so, every day of our lives we have a decision to make. Will we live according to God’s word or will we live only for our own desires? Will we form our minds according to the Bible or according to the values of the society around us? Will we respect the life and dignity of every human being or will we remain silent while millions of babies are aborted and many millions more live in poverty? We have the power to shape our future by the choices we make today. The day will come, however, when it will be too late to choose, when our destiny will already be set. How it turns out depends on God’s mercy and on our willingness to show His mercy to others today.

It is important for us to keep in mind that, when we preach about the realities of our own death and the end of the world, it is not meant to fill our hearts with fear. It is not God’s desire for us to live in trepidation for the future. Rather we discuss these uncomfortable topics so that we may be converted and change the way we live while there is still time. We also reflect on these realities so that we can learn to trust God more. He has our life and destiny in His hands. If we love Him and listen to His word, we can be sure that He will guide us on the path to life.

Jesus speaks to this in today’s gospel. He tells his disciples who are marveling at the beauty of the temple in Jerusalem that a day will come when it will all be destroyed. This is a shock to them. The temple was a massive structure constructed of large stone blocks which took over forty years to build. It was a marvel of engineering and architecture. Moreover, it was the dwelling place of God on earth. It was unimaginable to the people of Jesus’ day that it could ever be destroyed. Though the disciples are alarmed, Jesus does not tell them this to frighten them. Even when He tells them that they will be hauled off and put to death, He wants them to know that they need not fear. He will always be with them. He wants them not to be afraid but to be aware. No matter what will happen, they can trust that He will provide for them. Nothing can happen to separate them from their Heavenly Father.

We are living in a time of large scale transition in our society and in our world. We cannot tell what will happen and can feel anxious for the future. The world as we know it is passing away. As Jesus said, there are many who claim to have the answer to society’s ills. But there is only One who can cure what is really disordered in the human heart. That is God Himself. He alone can burn away the sin which destroys our families and communities. No matter how well organized governments may be or how sound the economy, if we continue hating one another, lying and cheating each other, our society cannot enjoy peace. Only by humbling turning to God and submitting to His will can we ever find any real solutions to the problems plaguing our world. There is no other way than The Way, Jesus Christ.

And so, as we reflect on these sometimes disturbing realities, we need not be afraid. God will provide us with the strength we need to endure whatever trials may come. And He will provide us with the grace we need to live everyday of our lives in accordance with His word so that, when He does come again we will be ready to embrace Him and bend the knee before Him in reverence and awe rather than in shame and fear.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

I Believe

For over seven years now, a new translation of the Mass has been implemented in parishes throughout the English speaking world. It has been the most important change to the liturgy since it was first translated into English after the Second Vatican Council. The hope has been that by presenting a translation which is closer to the original Latin, we will gain a deeper understanding of the words we pray during Mass.

One of the interesting changes in wording that has taken place is to the Nicene Creed which we pray together after the homily. The words, “We believe” have been changed to “I believe.” Not only is “I believe” a more literal translation of the original Latin, it is also a challenge for us to take ownership of the words we are praying. Each of us is meant to lay claim to the words of the creed, standing up together with our fellow Christians and professing our belief in one God, in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us in our faith.

Professing our faith, living it every day and defending it are integral parts of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Thankfully, in every generation, God has raised up holy women and men who have had the courage to profess their faith in Jesus despite persecution and hardship. If it were not for their brave and faithful witness, the faith in all its richness would not have been handed down to us. We now need to profess and live that faith so that a new generation of believers can hear the good news and know the joy of a life lived in and for Christ. And so, when we pray the words “I believe”, we need to ask God for the faith to really believe to the depth of our soul and for the courage to put our faith into practice.

Today’s first reading from the Second Book of Maccabees offers us the harrowing account of a family that is put to death for refusing to compromise their beliefs. We might think it strange in our day that someone would rather die than eat pork. However, Israel’s dietary laws were an important means by which the nation was able to retain its Jewish identity as the chosen people of God despite invasions and exile. This family understood that by eating pork they would be disobeying God. They would rather obey God and suffer at the hands of men than obey men and betray their God. For this family, faith was more important than life itself. The hope of everlasting life gave them the courage to endure grisly tortures knowing that God would reward them.

In our day, we no longer follow the strict dietary laws which the Israelites observed. We maintain our Christian identity not by the foods we choose to eat but by the way we live. We use whatever money we have  to feed and clothe the poor. We love our neighbors and pray for our enemies. We visit the sick and those in prison. We value human life and the sanctity of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. We revere our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit and refuse to pollute or abuse them. We know that we are called to live forever praising God in heaven so we do not seek fulfillment only in this life. We know that only God can meet the deepest need of our heart.

Our way of life and the witness of our faith has the power to inspire those we meet and lead them to Jesus who is the source of our goodness. But, very often, it can be met with hostility by those who have rejected the gospel message. They resent it when we do not join in their gossiping. They want to label us fanatics because we believe that life is sacred. And so they take every opportunity to ridicule us or to pressure us into taking part in their sinful behavior. None of us wants to feel left out, so the temptation to abandon our beliefs and join the crowd can be strong. However, whenever we do so, we risk losing our identity. We let others define our values for us rather than taking them from the gospel. And we communicate to others that our faith is just for show, that it plays no part in the way we live or in the decisions we make.

However, when we find the courage to refuse to follow the crowd something powerful takes place. We will certainly be ridiculed and ostracized for professing our faith. But others will start to take notice. They will start to wonder why our faith is so important to us that we would risk everything to live it. And they will want to come to know this man, Jesus, who inspires and strengthens us.

We believe in one God. We believe in the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting. And we commit ourselves to living this belief without counting the cost. However, we cannot do it on our own. We need the Holy Spirit to strengthen and inspire us. We need our brothers and sisters gathered with us here to encourage and support us. And we need Jesus to feed us with His Body and Blood so that we will have the strength to carry on. God is faithful. He will not abandon us. May we not abandon Him but, instead, leave this place full of His joy and the courage to spread our faith to everyone we meet.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

What's Your Excuse?

A leading financial magazine surveyed business owners and corporate managers with the question, “What keeps people from succeeding in business?”

Some answered that it was lack of motivation and effort. Others complained that most workers had other priorities than getting ahead in the company. Still others noted that many people just do not have the skills necessary to plan, budget or manage effectively.

However, what just about everyone polled reported as a major factor holding workers back from success was the tendency to make excuses. One respondent was quoted as saying, “Many of the people I manage are better at producing excuses than producing results.” Making excuses was also described as the expectation to fail even before trying. Rather than taking responsibilities for choices, it allows workers to blame others for their lack of success. Excuses give people permission to not take risks and, therefore, remain imprisoned in mediocrity.

What is true in the business world is also true about our spiritual lives. We have many excuses for not taking time to pray, for not attending Mass even for not following the Church’s teachings. We have excuses for not giving something up for Lent, for not spending time reading the Bible and even for not spending time with our families. For every challenge that might come our way because of our faith, we have an excuse to avoid it. All the while, we are missing out on all the graces that God wants to offer us. So many gifts of peace and joy are lost to us because we are too busy making excuses rather than taking the risk of following the path Jesus calls us to.

Today’s gospel has much to teach us about all the blessings that can come our way once we put our excuses aside and take a risk for Jesus. It is the story of the tax collector, Zacchaeus.

There were plenty of reasons why it would be absurd for such a man as Zacchaeus to hope to ever have a life changing encounter with our Lord. He had plenty of excuses to not try to get a glimpse of Jesus.

First of all, Zacchaeus was a short man. The crowd was so tightly packed that he could not hope to see Jesus over their shoulders and heads. The children had the benefit of sitting on their fathers' shoulders to get a look at Jesus. But no one was about to help Zacchaeus. We can just imagine him getting on the tips of his toes and jumping up and down to see over the people who were packed along the side of the road.

Secondly, Zacchaeus was not only a small man physically, but he was also a small man spiritually. Though his name means "righteous one", he was far from being a just man. He had accumulated his riches by extorting from the locals more taxes than the empire required. And the taxes he gathered helped ensure that the Roman Empire could exercise its tyrannical grip on the Jewish people. He must have known in his heart that a man like himself was not worthy to be anywhere near Jesus. Zacchaeus must have feared that a sinner such as himself would be brushed aside, ignored or even scolded openly by the truly Righteous One, Jesus.

Thirdly, because of his position in the empire, Zacchaeus was small in the eyes of the crowd. No one was about to help him. Even if Jesus were to acknowledge him, the crowd would certainly denounce him for his crimes against them. In fact, we see just that happen when Jesus asks to dine at his house. Zacchaeus had reason to fear the ridicule of the crowd and, being a small man, might even have feared that they would turn on him and beat him.
With everything that was against him, Zacchaeus could have told himself that it was no use. However, instead of hanging his head and going home, Zacchaeus knew he would have to take an extreme measure to get a look at Jesus. He took the risk of climbing the sycamore tree. The crowd would surely ridicule him. He may have fallen and hurt himself, or at the very least, torn his fine tunic. But it got Jesus' attention.

Jesus called Zacchaeus by name Though he had never met him, Jesus recognized that it was God’s grace that stirred in Zacchaeus' heart compelling him to do whatever it took to overcome his size, his shame and his fear of the crowd. And he was rewarded because his love for Jesus overcame his fear.

Faith requires overcoming obstacles and facing challenges to bring our values into reality. For every shameful experience, for every crowd that denounces us, for anything standing in our way, there is a grace compelling us to do whatever it takes to overcome it. Once we brush our excuses aside, we can grasp what Jesus is offering.

Unfortunately, we tend to associate religion with guilt and shame. However, they do not help us in our relationship with God. Rather, they make us shrink away and hide. They close us off in fear, rather than opening us up in love. They may motivate us to drop harmful habits, but they cannot inspire us to do good. Zacchaeus' spontaneous pledge to payback fourfold the money he extorted came not from any shame he felt before the crowd, but because of his joy that Jesus recognized him and desired to stay with him.

Guilt and shame create excuses for us. But grace overcomes our limitations, compelling us to do whatever it takes to reach out to Jesus for friendship.

What excuses are holding us back? What are we afraid of? What challenges and obstacles stand in our way? Jesus is offering us the grace to overcome them if we put our trust in Him and take the risk of seeking Him out no matter what the crowd may think of it. When we do, we will find that He knows us by name, that He calls us to a banquet of love and that we can have a deep, personal relationship with Him no matter our sin and failings.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Saints Give Us Hope

A young American man, motivated by his Christian faith, decided to commit a year of his life serving the poor in Africa.

He had no idea what he was in for.

Serving in a country that was suffering under a corrupt government and severe famine, he witnessed death, disease and hunger in a way he never imagined possible. Day after day, he was confronted with sick children, hungry women and battle-scarred men, none of whom he felt he could help.

After a few weeks, the feeling of powerless and despair began to eat at his heart. “Where is God in all this?”, he would ask himself. “Why is God allowing this? Why won’t He stop it?” And the suspicion crept into his soul that maybe God does not really exist or, if He does, He does not care.

All these thoughts were running through his mind as he, along with several other young men, was bringing a truck full of food to a village deep in the jungle. When they arrived, villagers came streaming out of their huts to meet them. It had been days since any of them had eaten and they were anxious to get their hands on some food. The young men feared that they would run out of provisions and that the mob would turn violent. However, soon all the food had been passed out and the crowd began to disperse.

The only person left was a young girl, no more than eight years old. The young man’s heart broke as he explained to her that all he had left to give her was one banana that he had been saving for himself for the long drive back. He gave it to her, and she thanked him. Watching her leave, he saw her take it to two other girls younger than herself. She peeled the banana, gave half to one of the girls, gave the other half to the other girl and then started licking the inside of the peel

At that moment, the young man knew that God was real, that He existed and that He cared. The girl’s generous act reminded him that even in the most horrendous of circumstances, the love of God is at work in the world and, therefore, there is still hope.

The young man’s experience teaches us a powerful lesson. We learn about the love and compassion of God from one another. Our goodness is a reflection of the goodness of God. Our good deeds done in charity point to One who is greater than ourselves. And it is our life’s purpose to show forth the glory of God by giving of ourselves in love to one another.

That is what a saint is - one who reflects the love and goodness of God. By his or her good deeds and holy life, each saint directs our gaze to the One who created us in His image and likeness. The saint is the one who proves to us that God is real by the goodness of his or her life. Stronger than any philosophical argument, more convincing than any rhetorical device, is the witness of a holy man or woman.

That is what each of us is called to be. Becoming a saint  means learning to be who we really are. Each of us is created in the image and likeness of God. It is in our nature to reflect His love and goodness. Saint John tells us in the second reading that we are the children of God. Just as a child looks like his or her father, so we “look like” our Heavenly Father. Just as all that a child has comes from his or her father, so all that we have and are comes from our Heavenly Father. We are His children called to live the love, the goodness and the truth that He has revealed to us in His Son, Jesus Christ.

We live in a world filled with young men like the one I described at the beginning of this homily. They are women and men who are beaten down by all the suffering they have experienced either in themselves or in their loved ones. Looking at the condition of our society, they are slowly being drained of their hope. It is up to us as children of God and followers of Jesus Christ to be like the young girl. We have to be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others so that they may be restored in the hope of God’s goodness. Through the holiness of our lives, we must witness to them that a relationship with God is possible, that they can find forgiveness and healing in the One who gave His life to save them.

This world is in need of saints. This society needs you and me to live out the good news of Jesus Christ in a total and uncompromising fashion. It may seem like a daunting task. There are times when we ourselves feel overwhelmed not only by the condition of the world but by our own weakness and sinfulness. That is why we need to make use as frequently as possible of the sacraments, of prayer and of friendships with other believing Christians. We cannot do it alone. We can only do it through the power of our God.

For those who believe in God, there is always hope. We hold on to our Heavenly Father’s promise that He is always with us and that He has an eternal reward awaiting us in heaven. That hope gives us confidence to show His love to everyone we meet. We pray that our good works and prayers will fill others with hope to be beacons of light overcoming the world’s darkness.