Thursday, August 17, 2017

Mary Leads Us To Jesus

Mary always leads us to her son, Jesus Christ.

All these many centuries after her earthly life ended, it is no different. She is the one who leads us here, to this holy place, so that we can reflect on and celebrate the hope of heaven that is ours through faith.

On this holy day we commemorate the Blessed Virgin Mary who was assumed body and soul into heaven.

When we die, our souls will be separated from our bodies and our corpse will corrupt.

However, by the gift of God, Mary’s body was not left to rot in the earth but was lifted up together with her soul to the glory of heaven.

This was fitting and pleasing to Jesus. As His mother never sinned during her life, He desired that her body not suffer the effects of sin which are corruption and decay. Since the harmony of her body and soul was never disrupted by evil desires, so her body and soul would not be separated by death.

This gift that Mary received is a participation in Jesus’ own resurrection. Just as Mary suffered along Him during the hours of His crucifixion, so she would enjoy the resurrection of her own body.

This same hope is held out to us who have been baptized into Jesus’ death. Though none of us can claim to be sinless, we can be assured that, if we embrace with love the crosses that are part of our day-to-day lives, we too will one day participate in Jesus’ victory over sin and death.

We are made for more than this life and what it can give us. We are made for more than to spend several decades on earth and then die. Rather, our true home is heaven. We were created to spend eternity with God.

During this earthly life, we experience a struggle within ourselves. Our soul and our body are constantly at war with each other. On the one hand, we yearn to pray, to be disciplined and to serve others. But, on the other hand, we get tired, frustrated and bored. We want to wake up early to pray but our body wants to spend another ten minutes in bed. We want to read the Bible but so often turn on the television instead. We are in a constant battle to respond generously to God’s grace or to give in to temptation or laziness.

This does not mean that our bodies are bad. On the contrary, God created our bodies and made them good. Our body is more than just a container for our souls. Rather, our bodies are who we are. We are our body as much as we are our soul. However, because of sin, our bodies so easily yield to temptation. And, because of sin, our bodies will one day die.

However, during the struggles we experience during this earthly life, we hold on to a hope that cannot fade. It is the hope that one day our bodies will be raised up and reunited with our souls. Like Jesus and Mary, we will have a glorified body that no longer experiences pain and suffering. It will be a body that is in total harmony with our soul. In that glorified state, our whole being will praise the goodness and mercy of God throughout all eternity.

Mary already rejoices before the throne of God in a glorified body. By the resurrection of Jesus Christ and by her prayers, we hope to attain the same.

And so, in the time we have remaining in our earthly life, we struggle against temptation and sin. When we fall, we repent and go to confession. When we overcome evil through love, we give the glory to God. In all things, we rely on God’s grace and the prayers of Our Lady in heaven. And we look forward in hope, for one day the struggle will be over and our corrupt bodies will be raised to immortality.

That is the mystery we celebrate today. That is the mystery we live every day of our lives as we look forward to the glory that awaits us in heaven.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Assumption Of The Blessed Virgin Mary

Early on, those who followed Jesus would have had a great respect for Mary simply because she is His mother. Just as we would have affection for our friends’ mothers, we can imagine that the first disciples of Jesus would have loved Mary because Jesus did.

As time went on, however, it became clear to these disciples that there were more reasons to love Mary. They came to realize that she was a great woman in her own right.

First of all, they would have seen her as the model of discipleship. At every event of Jesus’ life, Mary is by His side. From His birth to His death on the cross, she follows her son. The disciples would have seen in Mary a faithful follower of Jesus, willing to be with Him no matter what the circumstances.

Secondly, they would have seen her as a model of prayer. We see this conviction particularly in the gospel of Saint Luke. Mary is the one who ponders the mystery of her Son’s life. At every significant moment, she is at prayer. Even after the resurrection, she joins the disciples in the upper room to await the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, the early disciples of Jesus would have come to consider Mary to be their mother as well. Saint John tells us in his gospel that Mary was given to us by Jesus on the cross to be our mother. We can imagine that just as she comforted and cared for her son, so Mary would have comforted and cared for the disciples after He ascended to heaven. We can also imagine that she never failed to share her wisdom and insight into the mystery of Christ with them.

Therefore, Mary was more than simply the mother of Jesus. For the first Christians, she was a woman of prayer, a disciple and a mother for all believers. Her greatness came not only from the fact that she offered her body to bring the Messiah into the world but that she was the first to believe in the good news. As Saint Augustine put it, before she conceived Jesus in her womb, Mary had already conceived Him in her heart. She is the blessed one who “believed that what was spoken to [her] by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

It is in this way that we can understand the meaning of today’s feast. Because Mary was faithful in bearing the Christ child in her womb, because she never failed to offer her body to accomplish the Heavenly Father’s saving will, God rewarded her by raising her body and soul into the glory of Paradise. God would not allow the body of the woman who carried His Son to suffer decay. He would not allow the body from which the Son of God took His flesh to be discarded in a grave. Rather, He gave her a share in Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into glory.

In Heaven, Mary continues to serve as an inspiration for us. She teaches us how to pray and gives us an example of what it means to be faithful to Jesus. Constantly in the presence of her Son, she offers prayers for us, bringing our needs to the throne of God. While we certainly can go straight to Jesus with our petitions, there is an extra power that our prayer receives when Mary carries them for us to her Son. In a sense, she translates our prayer into words that will be pleasing to Jesus. She removes from it whatever may be selfish or foolish. In her wisdom, she sees through our words to the real need of our heart and offers them to her Son on our behalf. And we can be assured that Jesus will not say “no” to his beloved mother.

So we gather here today to rejoice that we have a mother in Heaven who is watching over us and praying for us. That should give us great confidence as we approach Jesus with our needs and the needs of those we love. It also gives us great hope that, just as Mary was raised to the glory of heaven, so we too await the day when we will enter the glory of God’s Kingdom.

Mary has gone ahead of us and we hope to follow close behind by following her example of prayer and faithfulness to Jesus, her Son.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Pray, Hope And Don't Worry

Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, affectionately known as “Padre Pio”, was well-known all over Italy for his holiness and wisdom. People came from all over the world to confess to him and seek advice for growth in their spiritual lives. His words to them were always simple but full of wisdom, “Do not worry. Pray and hope.”

Do not worry. Pray and hope.

While this is simple advice, it is not easy to live out. We naturally fret over situations that threaten to harm us either physically, financially or emotionally. With sickness, family tensions, unemployment and social unrest all around us it is easy to be consumed by fear.

Padre Pio’s advice comes from his unshakeable faith in God and His love. The saintly friar knew that God was in control of all things. He was convinced that nothing could separate him from the love of God and that, no matter what may happen, our Heavenly Father would make all things work for good.

Therefore, saying “Do not worry. Pray and hope,” came as naturally to Saint Pio as worry and fear come to us who have lesser faith.

In today’s gospel, we see the apostles in a state of panic. Their small fishing boat is being tossed about like a cork on the Sea of Galilee. Frantically, they are fighting to keep the waves from swallowing them up. It looks as though all may be lost.

Then they see Jesus walking on the water toward them. At first they think they are seeing things. It has to be a ghost. But they recognize Him as their Lord. Unlike them, He is not filled with fear. He does not panic. Rather, He shows Himself to be Master over the stormy sea. He has control over nature in all its wrath and fury. In fact, not only does He walk on the water but, as soon as He gets in the boat, He calms the winds.

Doing so, Jesus shows Himself to be God. Just as God parted the Red Sea before the Israelites to save them from Pharaoh's army, so Jesus calms the Sea of Galilee to save His disciples from the storm. Just as God parted the Jordan River so that the Israelites could enter the Promised Land, so Jesus walks on the water to save the ones He had chosen. As God, Jesus has power over the elements and uses that power to save His people.

In just the same way, Jesus has power over the problems  that threaten to crush us. He has power over the debt that threatens to swallow us up. He has control over the relationships which drain our energy and leave us exhausted. He has power over those forces in government that want to deprive us of our religious freedom and other rights. As Creator of the Universe, there is nothing which lies beyond His authority.
For us, it is a simple matter of faith. In the face of everything which is beyond our control, we can place it in the hands of this Almighty God knowing that He will handle it. Whatever it may be, only He can bring about certain justice, lasting peace and a clear resolution. It might not be in the way we expect or in the manner we prefer, but it will be effective. In the midst of the storms that rage around us, we can be confident that He will save us. It is simply a matter of praying and hoping.

Now, placing all things in God’s hands is not a way for us to deny the problems that face us. It is not a way of absolving ourselves of responsibility for our lives. Rather it is a way for us to act in a clear and confident manner.

Fear paralyzes us. It makes us want to run away and hide. However, when we acknowledge that God is in control, we regain our confidence. We realize that no matter what may happen, God will save us. We can confront the circumstances that threaten us knowing that our Heavenly Father is greater than any earthly power. Like Peter, we find the courage to get out of the boat, to confront the storm and discover that we have abilities beyond what we ever could imagine. Sometimes that is all it takes for the bullies in our lives to drop their weapons and run away.

Each of us here today is facing some difficulty that seems overwhelming, some problem that seems unsolvable, some pain that seems beyond anyone’s power to relieve. God knows what we are facing. If we allow Him to join us in the boat, if we allow Him to be with us in the storm, He will see us safely to port. It may not happen immediately. God may allow the storm to rage around us for a while so that we can learn to trust Him more deeply or maybe so that we can discover that we have more strength, courage and resiliency than we thought.

Either way, He is in control and will not allow us to go under. Saint Pio’s simple advice should guide us always. “Don’t worry. Pray and hope.”

Friday, August 11, 2017

Silence Is God's Language

Have you ever heard God speak to you? Have you ever had a thought pop into your head or a feeling move your heart so intensely that you knew it could only have come from God? Have you ever seen your prayers answered? Have you ever felt yourself wrapped in your Heavenly Father’s loving embrace?

If any of us have answered “no” to these questions, there is probably one good reason why. We most likely do not have enough quiet time in our lives.

In today’s society we are surrounded by noise. We are jerked out of sleep in the morning by a radio alarm. As soon as we get out of bed, we turn the television on. In our cars, we have the radio going. Every other time, we either are scrolling through the computer, playing with our cellphones or have earphones on. Even in church before Mass when we should expect to have some quiet time, there is often needless chatter in the pews.

However, without silence, we cannot hear God speak to us. Our Heavenly Father most often does not reveal Himself in blinding visions. He does not come to us shouting and waving His arms. Most often, God speaks to us in silence, when we are quiet and when our attention is focused on Him.

This is the lesson the prophet Elijah learned in today’s first reading. He is standing on the mountain where God first appeared to Moses and gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites after they fled Egypt. Elijah was in trouble. Jezebel, the queen of Israel, wanted him killed, and he was running for his life. He knew it was the end of the road for him, and he wondered what God was going to do about it.

As the story goes on, a strong gust of wind passed by, an earthquake shook the mountain and a fire blazed up. These were the ways God had shown Himself in the past. He had appeared in the burning bush to Moses. He had led the people out of Israel in a pillar of fire. And an earthquake rocked Mount Sinai when the Ten Commandments were delivered to the people. But God did not choose to appear in these ways to Elijah. Instead, He spoke in a soft, gentle whisper. God was doing something new. If Elijah had been looking for some great show of power, he would have missed it altogether.

God loves each of us. And because He loves us, He wants to speak to us. He wants us to know that He is always with us. He wants us to know that He is in control and that He will provide us with all that we need. However, if we are to hear Him, we have to be quiet. We have to shut out all the noise buzzing around us and calm our minds and spirits. We have to be ready to listen.

How do we do that? A good first step would be to set aside time everyday to practice being quiet. Each of us needs a place we can go where we can be alone with God without noise and without distractions. It may mean getting up earlier in the morning or going to bed later. It may mean clearing out a room in our homes or apartments where we can settle ourselves down to focus on our Heavenly Father. Whatever it takes, for our spiritual well-being we need to give ourselves some quiet time.

If by God’s grace we are able to make time everyday to be quiet, our lives will change in amazing ways. We will experience a growing sense of God’s presence. When difficulties arise, we will have more perspective and a clearer mind to be able to deal with them. No matter how out of control circumstances may be around us, we will have a peaceful center that gives us reassurance and serenity through it all. Most importantly, we will live with a sense that God ultimately is in control of everything and, because He loves us, He will make all things work for our good.

Storms inevitably come our way. Like Elijah we may find ourselves running for our lives, or like the disciples in the gospel, we may find ourselves being tossed about by the waves. God may seem to be far away or to have abandoned us altogether. Like Peter, we may feel that we are about to drown and have come to a point where our only hope is to reach out our hand to Jesus and cry out, “Lord, save me.” But if we have a peaceful center that is nourished by quiet time and prayer, we will have confidence no matter how strong the wind is or how powerful the waves.

If we were to make quiet time for the Lord and  were to hear Him speak in His soft whisper, what would we hear? Most likely it would be the words Jesus speaks in today’s gospel, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” In fact, there are no words that Jesus speaks more often in all the gospels than, “Be not afraid.” Jesus wants to relieve our fears by reassuring us that He is by our side. The One who calmed the raging sea, who revealed Himself in fire on Mount Sinai and who conquered death is in control. Though He is hidden from our sight, He is still by our side. And He will save us if we cry out to Him. If we make time to be quiet in His presence every day, then our ears will be opened to hear Him speak and our eyes will witness His actions in our lives.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

God Is Greater

A woman was widowed at a young age and left with three young children to raise. As you can imagine, she struggled through many long days and lonely nights worrying about how she would pay her bills and build character in her children. Sympathizing with her, a friend gave her a magnet for her refrigerator which simply said, "God is greater than..." After the "than", there was a blank line to fill in. So, for instance, God is greater than my bills. God is greater than my worries. God is greater than my boss. She kept the magnet on her refrigerator as a reminder that, no matter what she might be experiencing, God was in control. The God who loved her was greater than whatever challenge she might be facing.

In today's gospel, Jesus shows that he is greater than the powers of nature. The disciples were being tossed about the Sea of Galilee by strong waves and head winds. Despite the chaos and obvious danger, Jesus comes to them walking on the water. He shows himself to have power over nature even at the height of its fury by calming the sea and its waves. The display of majesty and power leaves no doubt in the minds of the disciples that Jesus is the Son of God.

Throughout the Scriptures, the sea symbolizes chaos and nature's power to destroy. We see it dramatically in the story of Noah as the flood waters rise to destroy all life on the earth. The prophet Jonah likewise encounters rough seas when he tries to flee the Lord's command that he preach repentance to the city of Nineveh. It is only when he stops running away from the Lord and is tossed into the raging sea that the waters calm down.

But, the seas can also be the place where God's saving power is manifest. For instance, as the Hebrews are fleeing the Egyptian army, the Red Sea parts for them allowing them to cross to safety. And, at the end of the forty year pilgrimage in the desert, it is the waters of the Jordan River which welcome them into the promised land flowing with milk and honey.

So, the sea represents both the fury and chaos of nature as well as the place where God shows himself to be Master and Savior.

In our everyday lives, the same is true. It is precisely where there is chaos in our lives, where there is confusion, where we are struggling that God shows his power in our lives. God shows himself to be greater than any pain we may be suffering. God shows himself to be master over our lives and over our world.

How do we come to know this power of God at work in our lives? Very simply, we have to begin by thanking God for our difficulties and for our struggles. That's right! We have to thank God for the chaos and confusion in our day-to-day lives. When we stop complaining and start thanking God we begin to realize that God has a plan for our life and that God can use our problems to make us grow in holiness. By praising God, we proclaim our faith that God is the master of our lives and that God is greater than our trials and tribulations. And, we grow in the assurance that God will never allow us to be submerged by the waters, but even when we fail as Peter did, he will be there to reach out a hand to us. By thanking God, we don't trivialize our pain and suffering, rather we maximize our experience of God's power at work in us.

Peter was doing a fine job of walking on the water. He only got into trouble because he took his eyes off Jesus and starting worrying about the wind and the waves. In that moment, Peter forgot that Jesus was greater than the sea and greater than the power of nature. As long as we keep our eyes on Jesus, no matter how daunting or how difficult our lives may become, we will be fine. We can be assured of this because the God who holds the whole world in his hands cares for us even more than we care for ourselves. He will pull us to safety soon.  

Monday, August 7, 2017

Coming To Belief

How is it that simple Galilean countrymen came to believe that Jesus was not only the Messiah but the eternal Son of God?

If someone were claiming to be God, we would naturally be skeptical. Even if we were somehow to be convinced that one of our friends was really God, we would probably have quite a bit of trouble convincing others.

Yet, twelve men from Galilee did in fact come to believe that Jesus Christ, a carpenter from Galilee, was truly God in the flesh and they succeeded in convincing countless others as well.

How could that be?

The simple answer is that their experience of Jesus convinced them that He was divine.

At His baptism, they heard God’s voice call out from Heaven, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17). Those same words are echoed in today’s gospel when Jesus is transfigured in glory before Peter, James and John.

During the years that followed, they witnessed Jesus perform mighty miracles. Not only did He cure the sick and raise the dead, but He also showed that He could command hurricane force winds to be stilled and could even walk on water. Not only that, He showed that He could read men’s minds and claimed to have the power to forgive sins - powers which only God could claim to have.

What finally convinced them, however, was the Resurrection. God raised Jesus from the dead making it clear to them that He shared in Almighty God’s power over the grave.

They then went out to all the world and witnessed to others what they had seen and heard during those years that they spent with Jesus. Preaching to a pagan world steeped in arcane mythologies, the apostles spoke of events which they themselves witnessed - historical events and actual places which others could also testify to. Saint Peter, in fact, tells us as much in today’s second reading: “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” The apostles were not so much preaching a doctrine or a way of life but a person - Jesus Christ - whom they had come to know personally and who convinced them by means of powerful deeds that He was, indeed, the Son of God and Savior of the World.

Therefore, when we hear so-called experts and scholars claim that Jesus never existed or that the apostles made up the gospels, we should pay no attention to them. In fact, there is at least as much if not more evidence that Jesus existed as there is that Julius Caesar or Socrates existed. If we are going to doubt the historical truth of the gospels then we should also doubt the historical truths about Caesar Augustus or any other figure from antiquity.

The fact is that Jesus really existed. He really claimed to be the Son of God. Our faith in Him, then, lies in historical realities that are attested to by eyewitnesses. These eyewitness testimonies have been handed down to us. This testimony, as Saint Peter tells us in the second reading, is “altogether reliable”. Our faith, therefore, is not “blind”. Rather it is based on history - on events that really took place.

Of course, not everyone who witnessed Jesus’ miracles came to believe in Him. We know that some of the religious authorities of His day claimed that His powers came from the devil (Luke 11:15). They were also extremely offended by His claim to be equal to God. It was ultimately because of this that Jesus was put to death.

How is it then that some believed and that many others did not?

The answer is that faith is a gift. Throughout the gospels, it is Jesus who invites people to follow Him. He always takes the initiative. That is why He says to the disciples, and to us, at the Last Supper, “It is not you who chose me but I who chose you” (John 15:16). We cannot give ourselves faith. It is not the result of our efforts but it is, rather, a gift of God which we can only receive with humility and gratitude.

This is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us about faith: “Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him. Before this faith can be exercised, man must have the grace of God to move and assist him…” (CCC 153).

At the end of the day, we can never understand why some people believe and others do not. However, we can be sure that God offers this gift to everyone - both the gift of believing and the gift of living out our faith. We know this because “God desires everyone to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). If God desires everyone to be saved and if faith is necessary for salvation, then it follows that everyone is offered the gift of faith.

If there is anyone here who finds it hard to believe and doubts that God has ever offered them the gift of faith, please know that you are not alone. Many people struggle to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ, especially in our modern times. However, also know that if you desire to believe then that is already God preparing your heart for the gift of faith. God never gives us anything without first planting the desire for it deep within us. Continue to pray, then, and to ask because Jesus promised: “For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Mt 7:8).

On this Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, Jesus revealed His glory to Peter, James and John. Seeing His glory for themselves, they believed. We also have come to believe because their testimony has been handed down to us through the gospels. Not only that, we too have our own stories of how we have personally witnessed Jesus’ power to heal, His love for us and the miracles that happen through faith. Like those first apostles, we must fearlessly and boldly witness to others what we have seen and heard so that they too might experience Jesus for themselves. And, since faith is a gift, we must pray that God open the hearts of all people so that they too may come to believe. Then the whole world will be transfigured by the light of faith which will continue to shine down through the ages until the Son of Man comes again in all His glory.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Growing Together - Both Wheat And Weeds

From where I am standing, I see a congregation of very different types of people.

Some of us are attentive, listening to every word. Others of us are distracted, preoccupied with other things. Some of us have gathered here out of a burning love for God and desire to grow in knowledge of Him. Others of us are here to fulfill our weekly obligation. Some of us are on fire for the word of God and want to share it with others. Others of us are afraid what people will think if we talk too much about our beliefs. Some of us are eager to volunteer to further the mission of the parish whereas others of us are content to show up on Sundays and other feasts. Some of us are gentle and kind to those who are struggling with their faith while others of us can be judgmental and cold.  Looking out on this assembly of very different people, we see both wheat and weeds.

However, when I look within myself, I also see a divided and conflicted person. There are times when I have great zeal for prayer and works of mercy. There are other times when my focus is on how I can make myself most comfortable. There are moments when I want to help others and other moments when I just want to help myself. At times I can feel confident in my faith and other times when I can be wracked with doubts. Some days I can treat those who believe differently than I with compassion and other days that I am quick to judge them. When I look within myself, I see both weeds and wheat.

And, if you are like me, when you look within yourselves, you see the same.

As a community of believers, the parable in today’s gospel has much to teach us about loving and accepting one another. The type of weed that is sown in the garden by the enemy is called “darnell”. When it is first growing, it is virtually indistinguishable from wheat. If the servants had gone out too early to pull it up, it is very likely that they would have mistaken some of the wheat for weeds and ruined the harvest. It is also very likely that they would have missed some of the weeds, mistaking them for wheat, and allowed them to grow. In either case, trying to pull up the weeds too early would only make matters worse. The master was wise enough to know that only when a plant is fully mature, when its fruit begins to appear, can we judge whether it is good or bad.

And so, looking out upon our sisters and brothers who have joined us for prayer, we may be tempted to judge one another rashly. We may be tempted to draw conclusions about them, even subconsciously, based on the way they are dressed,  by how they conduct themselves or by how often we see them at Mass. However, we must always remember that looks are deceiving. The person who appears to not care about how he is dressed may be struggling financially. The person who appears to be distracted may be anguished over the health of a loved one. The one who only shows up occasionally to Mass may be working several jobs. And the cranky old man might be suffering mightily from arthritis or other ailments. All of us are a combination of wheat and weeds. Only God can look past the appearances to the heart. For our part, we can only accept and love one another just as we are, with our strengths and weaknesses, our blessings and our curses.

I want to address some words especially to the young people who are praying with us today. Your joy, idealism and enthusiasm are such gifts to our community of faith. We need your involvement to keep our parish energized and alive. I know that there are times, however, when you feel frustrated because we adults are not always the best examples to you. Too often we are afraid of change and unwilling to try new things. Sadly, you too often feel judged by us when you express your feelings and beliefs. Too often you have been treated more like weeds than wheat. I want to apologize to you and encourage you to keep on contributing your talents and insights to our community despite the obstacles. We desperately need your friendship and input if we are to grow to be all that Christ dreams we can be.

At the same time, I want to offer you a challenge. In the idealism of youth it is easy to fall into the trap of judging others to be hypocrites, especially when they do not seem to share your values or passion for goodness. However, this is a very subtle trap that the evil one sets for young people. It is very easy to fall into the temptation of judging others for being judgmental. When we do that, we are being hypocrites ourselves, doing the very thing that we are condemning. Just as you would want us to be patient and gentle with you, we ask the same courtesy. We are in this together, imperfect people, wheat and weeds, all striving to know and do God’s will to the best of our ability. We need each other and will only make progress as a community once we stop judging and learn to love and accept one another.

The same is true of the world that lies beyond the walls of this church building. It is a mixture of wheat and weeds. It is up to us to bring the love of God to our conflicted and divided world. To strengthen us for such a daunting task, our Heavenly Father gives us the best of wheat, the Body of Christ broken for us so that we may be made whole. Though He is perfect, He is patient with our imperfections and teaches us to be merciful to others so that they too may experience in us the love that Christ longs to share with a broken world.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Sympathizing With Another's Weakness

A boy came home from school crying. An older boy had been picking on him during recess. Because he did not want the other children to see him crying, he had held his emotions in all day. But coming home and seeing his mother, he could not hold it in any more. He sobbed uncontrollably.

It took him a while to compose himself, but finally he told his mother how the boy had teased him about his weight, called him names and pushed him. The mother promised that she would speak with the teacher, but he was afraid it would only make things worse. He would have to handle the older boy’s taunts on his own.

The next day, after school, to show his mother how he had been bullied, he began acting out what the older boy had done. He mimicked his tone of voice and the expression on his face. Every day, he would do the same thing, until after a while, they could begin to joke about it. With time, the boy even began to feel some sympathy for the bully. Imitating his words and actions began to give him some insight into the bully’s insecurities and pain which made him want to push other children around. With that, the teasing became less painful, and the bully eventually lost interest in picking on him.

This boy learned the wisdom of the Native American proverb, “Do not criticize others until you have walked a mile in their shoes.” Very often, the bad behavior of those around us is a result of the anguish, insecurity and fears that burden them. Weighed down under so much pressure, they often cannot help but lash out. We know how true that is in our own lives. When we are feeling down on ourselves, it is hard to be kind. We get so bogged down in our own problems that we cannot consider the needs of others. If we can take a little time to look at things from another person’s perspective, if we can try to understand the pain that may be causing the bad behavior, we might develop some sympathy and things may begin to turn around.

This is a reality Jesus knows very well. He became man so that he could walk in our shoes. Though He is God, He was willing to live a human life with all its difficulties, pains, anxieties and struggles. He knows through and through what it is like being human. And so He can sympathize with our weakness and have mercy on us in our sinfulness. Rather than be quick to condemn and punish us, Jesus is always ready to forgive and heal. As the first reading tells us: “You gave your children good ground for hope that you would permit repentance for their sins.”

This reality of God’s infinite mercy revealed in Jesus gives us insight into the meaning of the parable of the weeds and the wheat which we hear proclaimed in today’s gospel. As Jesus explains it, the wheat is the children of the Kingdom and the weeds are the children of the evil one. God allows them to grow together. The weeds receive the same nourishment as the wheat does. At times, the weeds are even indistinguishable from the wheat. So it is with our world. Good people do not always prosper and evil people are not always punished. We can easily be tempted into thinking that our good deeds are getting us nowhere or that the evil we commit is going unnoticed. We can wonder if God is really paying attention to what is going on down here or if He really cares.

But God sees the situation of the world much differently than we do. He looks into the heart of each person. He knows who is being sincere and who is putting up a front. He knows who is suffering and who is grieving. Many people who appear to us to be thriving are really dying on the inside. They may not seem to be suffering because of their sins, but their misdeeds are eating them up. In the same way, many people who appear to be good are hiding hearts full of rage. We cannot often tell the weeds from the wheat. But God sees it all. God sees each of us from the inside out. And so we must leave it to God to judge.

We have to be careful, however. Understanding the weaknesses of others can make it easier for us to forgive and to bear patiently with each other. But we can never allow our personal pain or insecurities to become an excuse for making bad choices. Every time we choose sin, no matter what weakness may be motivating us, we wound ourselves even further. We dig an even bigger hole for ourselves and make it that much harder to climb out. By continuing to choose sin, we keep ourselves imprisoned in fear.

God has something so much better in store for us. His mercy is not given to us to make excuses for us. His mercy is given so that we can be healed and restored to our full dignity as His children. He offers us forgiveness so that we can walk out of the prison of our shame and live confident lives. He wants to relieve the burden of our anxieties so that we can hold our head up. He offers us strength in place of our weakness, faith in place of our fear and victory in place of our defeat. He transforms the weeds in our life into wheat.

At this table, we will witness the greatest of all transformations. The gift of wheat which we will offer will become the Body of Jesus. He is the one who walked in our shoes. He knows the struggles we face and gives us nourishment to overcome them all. We offer Him all we are at this liturgy - the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the weeds and the wheat. He accepts us as we are. He understands where we are coming from. But He points the way to a future of healing and hope.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Weeds Among The Wheat

Anyone who has ever taken care of a lawn or tended a garden knows how dangerous weeds can be. Whether it's crabgrass or dandelions, not only are weeds ugly, but they steal nutrients and minerals from the good plantings. The only solution is to pull them up from the roots or poison them with chemicals. There's a risk to these treatments, however. Very often, in trying to uproot the weeds, some of the good grass is pulled up leaving an ugly bald spot on the lawn. And, with chemical treatments, the good plants can also be poisoned leaving a burn mark behind.

In today's gospel reading, Jesus tells the parable of a landowner whose wheat field becomes infested with weeds. The weeds which Jesus describes, which the Bible sometimes translates as "darnel", are not the type of weed that farmers in Jesus' day could recognize right away. Unlike a dandelion or crabgrass, darnel mixes in with the wheat. It's not until the crop matures and starts to yield grain that you can tell the wheat and the weeds apart. Because the crop is already so far along, the landowner is afraid that ripping up the weeds will do damage to the wheat. He is content to wait until harvest time rather than risk ruining any of his crop.

Jesus tells us this story to teach us something about God and about how God handles the world. As Jesus explains, the field is the world and all the people in it. The wheat represents good people and the weeds represent bad people. Like the landowner in the parable, God does not act right away to pull up the weeds. But, God's failure to act does not mean that he is not offended by our sinfulness and it certainly is not a sign of weakness. Rather, God waits patiently for sinners to repent and to change their ways. As we hear in the first reading from the book of Wisdom, God shows his power not in his willingness to punish but in his willingness to forgive. Like the father in the parable of the prodigal son and the shepherd in the parable of the lost sheep, God does not want to lose any person he has created. And so, he deals patiently with sinners in hopes that they will recognize his love and turn to him for pardon. God gives each of us the time we need to turn to him for forgiveness.

There is a good reason for God's patience. Unlike the landowner in Jesus' parable, God has the power to change weeds into wheat. God can work in our heart, helping us to recognize the error of our sinful ways and calling us to embrace the love he offers us. Saint Paul alludes to this in the second reading. None of us is able to pray as we ought. We get distracted or don't make the time necessary for God. Nonetheless, God's Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness by interceding for us. The Holy Spirit is within us as we pray so that our prayer can become acceptable to God. Just so, the Holy Spirit is working in our hearts and minds calling us to be holy and transforming us from weeds which are useless and harmful into wheat which provides food for the world. As long as we are alive, God never gives up on any of us but is always trying to find ways to get our attention so that we can become a shining harvest for him.

There is another way we can understand Jesus' parable. The field can represent not only the world, but each of us. Each of us is a mixture of good and bad. There is some wheat in us and some weeds. We love, but we also have resentments. We forgive some people, but judge others. And, we may wonder why God allows us to be so weak in some area of our life. Could it be that, like the landowner in the gospel, God is allowing some weeds to grow within us? Could it be that God is trying to teach us something through our weakness and our temptations?  Very often, God allows some weakness in our life to keep us from getting proud. There is no weed which is as dangerous to our spiritual life as pride is. It is the sin which made the devil himself fall from heaven. If it were not for our weaknesses, we could begin to think that we were better than others. We could even begin to think that we didn't need God. If it weren't for our weakness, we wouldn't know how the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, as Saint Paul tells us. If it weren't for our weakness, we might not turn to God at all. And so, God can allow some weeds in the garden of our heart to remind us that it is he who is the landowner and that he is the one who makes our garden grow.

Because God wants us to be saved, he is patient with us. He gives us the time we need to recognize our sinfulness and to turn to him in repentance. As we receive the gift of finest wheat, Jesus' Body in the form of bread, we must pray that we never become discouraged by the evil we see in the world or the evil we see in ourselves. In our weakness, we must pray to understand that God's purpose is somehow being served despite the sinfulness we see around us and in us. If we can entrust ourselves to God in our weakness, then he will transform us into wheat to feed the world. And, when God finally comes to reap his harvest, we will have confidence that he will gather us up to the reward he has prepared for us.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Tending The Garden

If we were to plant a garden this summer in our yards, we would need to make some basic preparations.

First, we would need to clearly delineate the boundaries of the garden by putting up string or even building a fence around it. Next, we would need to clear the ground by pulling up any grass or weeds which might be growing up. We would then loosen up the dirt by turning it over with a hoe and digging up any rocks we find. To make sure the soil is rich enough, we might even bring in some loam and manure. Next, we would grade the soil to make it level and then make sure it is adequately watered. Once we’ve decided what we wanted to plant, we would then make straight rows in the soil and sow the seeds.

Just as our garden needs preparation before it is ready to receive the seeds, so our soul needs preparation before it is ready to receive God’s word.

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells us what prevents the seed of His word from taking root within our heart and bearing abundant fruit.

The first obstacle Jesus warns us about is lack of understanding. We all have had the experience of sitting in the pew on a Sunday morning, listening to the readings and having no idea what is being said. We do not know who the people are that the reading is referring to. We may be unfamiliar with where it is taking place and even the words sound foreign to us. Though we want to pay attention and learn from God’s word, we end up getting distracted and our mind starts to wander.

It is natural that we often find God’s word hard to comprehend. Remember, these texts were written many thousands of years ago in an original language that can be difficult to translate and in cultures that are vastly different from our modern one. Even scholars who dedicate their lives to studying the Bible can have difficulty explaining the meaning of some of its passages.

That does not mean, however, that we cannot get a good enough grasp of the Bible to understand much of what it teaches and apply it to our lives. Today’s gospel is a good example. Though Jesus speaks in a parable, we can all understand His explanation of its meaning.

Also, when we have questions about a Scripture passage, we have so many tools at our disposal to understand what its meaning is. Most Bibles today have notes along the bottom of the page that give an explanation of the readings. Also, with the internet, we can find answers within seconds to our questions. Finally, we can always turn to someone who is more knowledgeable - perhaps our parish priest or deacon - to walk us through it.

The fact that the Bible can be difficult for us to understand can be no excuse to never read it. Knowledge of Scripture is fundamental to our lives as Christians. As Saint Jerome said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Even if it means that often we will be left scratching our heads because the meaning of a passage escapes us, we must persevere in reading the Bible so that God’s word can be planted deep within us and bear abundant fruit.

The second obstacle that Jesus points out to us is a lack of perseverance.  Jesus compares those who lack perseverance to rocky soil where the root cannot take hold. They are people who give up easily when the road becomes difficult or who get easily discouraged by their own weakness and failures.

There is no doubt that living God’s word in today’s world is difficult. There are those who will judge us as narrow-minded or prudish. With all the allurements around us, we often find ourselves falling short of the ideals of the gospel and sinning. It can be tempting to give up or to live our Christian commitment only on the surface. However, if we do so, God’s word cannot take deep root within us. It would be like pulling up a plant and trying to replant it. It just will not work.

What is needed, then, is for us to pick ourselves up every time we fall with the help of God’s grace and start over. God is merciful and loves us immensely. He always welcomes us back. When we fall short, we simply need to ask for His strength to continue on the road, especially when it is difficult. If we do so, then we will see the roots of His word deepening within us.

The final obstacle is one that is familiar to all of us. “The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word…” How many times have we sat in church and found that we have not paid attention to one word because we have been consumed with worry about what the week ahead will bring?

The Bible has some passages to help us overcome worry and trust more in God’s promise to provide for us.

Jesus says: “Which one of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” (Lk 12:25).
Saint Peter says: “Cast your cares on Him for He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)
Saint Paul says: “And my God will supply all your needs according to the riches of His glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).

Memorizing scripture verses that remind us of God’s love and care is a powerful way of easing our anxiety and helping us focus on what is most important in our lives. When we do so, we will find the peace necessary to allow God’s word to bear fruit in us.

God assures us through the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading: “ word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” Just as the tiny seed explodes with life and bears abundant fruit, so every word that comes forth from God’s mouth has the power to transform and enrich us. When we root out ignorance, inconstancy and anxiety from our souls, then God assures us we will enjoy a rich harvest of joy and peace. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Words That Bear Fruit

We remember Saint Francis as a man of peace, but early in his life he dreamed of winning glory on the battlefield as a soldier. He had his chance when his home town of Assisi went to war against the town of Perugia. However, his dreams of glory were short lived when he was soon captured and held for ransom. Nearly a year passed before his father finally paid to have him  released.

Returning to his native Assisi a much humbler man, he attended Mass one day and heard these words of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew, “If you want to be perfect, sell all that you have...and follow me” (Mt 19:21). This scripture passage struck a chord in Francis’s heart. He did want to be perfect. He did want to follow Jesus. Though he was the son of a very wealthy man, he decided he would sell everything he had and live a life of poverty. In one of the most dramatic moments in Christian history, he ran out into the town square and literally stripped himself of his fine clothes declaring to the world that he was abandoning everything to follow Jesus.

We know the rest of the story. Saint Francis would go on to found one of the world’s largest religious orders and bring much needed renewal to the Church.  Jesus sowed a word in Francis’s heart. It found rich soil and bore abundant fruit.

Like Saint Francis, Saint Augustine came from a wealthy family. However, unlike Francis, he did not dream of finding glory in war. Rather, he sought pleasure. Like many young men, he wanted nothing more than to satisfy his urges. He quickly found, however, that all the drinking and partying came at a price. Rather than find joy and peace, he found shame and despair. He was beginning to feel out of control, unable to stop himself even though he desperately wanted to.

One day, while walking in his garden, he was feeling especially distraught and cried out to God, "How long more, O Lord? Why does not this hour put an end to my sins?" Then, he heard the voice of a child say, “Take up and read.” Grabbing a copy of his Bible he came along this passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans: “It is now the hour for you to wake from sleep...Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provisions for the desires of the flesh” (Rom 13:14).

Finding inspiration from those words, Augustine was immediately baptized and began living a devout life. The story of his conversion and the holiness of his life became so well known that the people of Hippo in the north of Africa clamored that he serve as their bishop. With his great learning and intelligence, he preached against many of the errors of his day. His writings on a wide variety of topics including baptism, grace and the Holy Trinity have influenced Christian teaching through the centuries.

Jesus sowed a word in Augustine’s heart. It found rich soil and bore abundant fruit.

We could go on all day telling the stories of holy women and men who, like Francis and Augustine, were touched to the depth of their being by the word of God and forever changed. Like the rich soil in Jesus’ parable, they bore abundant fruit and reaped a copious harvest. Because of the example of their lives, the institutions they founded or the writings they left us, we continue to benefit from the fruits of God’s word in their lives.

What about you and me? What words have struck a chord within us? What gospel stories have touched our hearts and moved us to change either our behaviors or attitudes? Where has the word of God found rich soil in our hearts?

Let us take a few seconds right now to remember what words of Scripture have inspired us over the years. It might have been a story of healing from the gospels, one of Jesus’ parables or words from one of Saint Paul’s letters. How have those words comforted us over the years? How have they moved us to grow and change? What fruit have they borne in our lives? And how have others benefited from what God has done in us through those words?

It is important for our spiritual lives every now and then to look at the garden of our heart and see where God has brought fruitfulness and growth. It is good for us to look over our lives and enjoy how our Heavenly Father has used the rich soil to bring his word to fruition within us. That really is what our Sunday rest is all about, taking time to savor the sweetness of God’s work in our lives. Doing so reminds us that it is our Heavenly Father who is at work and that not everything depends on our efforts alone.

Once we spend time reflecting on how God’s word has molded us, it becomes evident what our next step must be. To continue to experience growth, we must pick up the Bible everyday so that God can continue to sow His word in the rich soil of our hearts. Doing so allows the Holy Spirit to water what Jesus has planted so that we can grow more and more filling our garden with lush plants bursting with fruit to the glory of God the Father.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A Planet Full Of Rich Soil

The Earth is a marvel among all the other planets in our universe. While all the other planets are essentially just barren rocks, our planet is pulsing with life. Conditions are just right on Earth to support life. There is enough oxygen for animals and enough carbon dioxide for plants. There is plenty of water for fish to live in and for us to drink. There are plants and animals in abundance to provide us with food. Not only does our planet provide for our physical needs, it also is a place full of wonder. We look in awe as the sun sets into the horizon. We marvel at the beauty of the oceans and the majesty of the mountains. Our world is a wonderful place. Unlike any other planet we know of, it is uniquely capable of sustaining life in such abundance.

Though we can clearly see how special Earth is, there are many who believe that it was all an accident. They think that it was just by pure luck that there is  enough water and oxygen to support life. They say that it is by pure chance that we are close enough to the sun to not be frozen but far enough away to not get burned up. These people look upon the same wonders of nature as we do but they do not see the same creating power of God that we see. The evidence of God’s handiwork in creation is plain for all to see, but they do not recognize the same Lord and Giver of Life that we worship. They are the ones of whom Jesus said: “They look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.”

God reveals Himself clearly in the beauty of the natural world which surrounds us. But He has also revealed Himself in His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the image of the Heavenly Father. Whoever looks on Jesus, sees the Father. Whoever listens to Jesus, hears the voice of the Father. And whoever welcomes Jesus, welcomes the Father. Just as the evidence of God’s existence is manifest in the universe, so the evidence of His great love is revealed in Jesus who taught us to love one another and showed us the real meaning of love by dying on the cross for us.

Jesus understood very well, however, that no matter how convincingly He spoke and that no matter how many miracles He performed, there would be those who would refuse to believe. There would be those who would close their hearts to His message of love. And there would be those who just would not listen. He encountered opposition to the good news at every turn right up until the moment He was condemned to die.

And so we can understand the meaning of Jesus’ parable in today’s gospel, the Parable of the Seed and the Sower. Though the seed is spread over a wide patch of land, only some of it takes root and grows. There is nothing wrong with the seed. But there is something wrong with much of the soil. Unless the seed falls on soil that can nurture it, it cannot grow.

The meaning is clear. Some people will accept God’s word and it will transform their lives. Others will totally reject it and get nothing from it. There is nothing wrong with the messenger. There is nothing wrong with the message. But there is often something wrong with our hearts. We are often too closed-minded, too preoccupied with other concerns or too afraid to welcome God’s word and its power to transform us.

All of us have had this experience. We are sitting in church during Mass but are so concerned with our work, with bills we have to pay, with homework assignments that are due or with other matters that we do not even hear what is going on around us. If someone were to ask us after Mass what the gospel or the homily was about, we would have no idea. We were not paying attention because we were so wrapped up in our problems. And yet, next week we will come to Mass with a whole different set of problems and will barely remember what we were worried about today.

That is why Jesus tells His disciples that anxiety over our lives can so often choke off the power of God’s word within us. While it is natural to be distracted over our problems, it does not have to keep us from listening to and profiting from the proclamation of the good news.

The first thing we need to do is become aware that we are distracted. We have to be able to catch ourselves starting to drift off. Then we have to make a conscious effort to pay attention to what is going on at Mass. Getting mastery over our distractions in prayer is no different from telling our children to stop talking during Mass. As we would do with our children, we remind ourselves that now is not the time to be thinking about our day-to-day problems. The more we remind ourselves, the better we will be at turning our minds and hearts over to God and letting His word sink into our soul and find rich ground within us.

The other thing we need to do is remind ourselves that God cares about us and knows the problems we face in our lives. Then we can place all that anxiety we are feeling in God’s hands and ask Him to help us deal with the difficult circumstances we are facing. As Saint Peter tells us, “Cast your cares on Him because He cares for you.” As we grow in trust, the anxiety will diminish and we will find ourselves better able to focus and pay attention.

We are here today because God has spoken His word in our hearts and it has found rich soil within our soul. We have seen and believed. We have heard and understood. At the same time, there is still so much soil within us that is overgrown with fear, anxiety and doubt. However, the more we choose faith over fear, trust over anxiety and belief over doubt, the more God’s Holy Spirit will be able to make our souls a fitting place for His word to take root and bear much fruit.