Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Blessings For The Poor And The Pure

We were created by God for one purpose - to live forever in His presence in heaven. There we will be content to gaze on His face and worship Him. God’s purpose in creating us is that we may one day see Him face to face in all His beauty and glory. Our hearts long for this more than any other pleasure this world can give.

In the gospel reading, Jesus lists for us the blessings of God’s Kingdom set aside for the poor and lowly. Only one of them has as its promise that we will see God. That is the sixth beatitude: “Blessed are the clean of heart for they shall see God.” If we want to fulfill our ultimate purpose and look upon the face of God, then Jesus teaches us that we must be clean or pure of heart.

Like most Bible teachings, purity of heart can be understood in several different ways. Today we will look at three possible meanings for the term so that we can apply them to our lives and come finally to see our God. They are keeping ourselves pure from the world, keeping our intentions pure and keeping ourselves pure from lust.

First of all, purity of heart means keeping ourselves unpolluted from this world and its disordered values.

Jesus and his first disciples, being good Jews, would have followed strict dietary laws such as not eating pork or the meat of a strangled animal. These laws were meant to set them apart from others and ensure that they had little contact with outsiders. It helped them maintain their Jewish identity as the chosen people of God through many centuries of exile and persecution.

As Christians, we do not have the same restrictions about what we should eat and how our food should be prepared. However, we are meant to keep ourselves clean from the distorted values and priorities of the world around us. We are to separate ourselves from the greed that exploits and impoverishes the weak. We are to walk away when the people around us are gossiping or speaking ill of others. Purity of heart means cherishing the forgiveness that we have received through the blood of Jesus and making every effort to avoid soiling our souls with the grime of sin.

Secondly, purity of heart means that, in everything we do, our only intention is to give God glory.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus is very critical of the Pharisees because their religion is for show. Their intention in praying out loud in the temple is that others may praise them for being holy and righteous. This outward show of holiness earned them respect and places of honor at banquets. In acting this way, they are not seeking glory for God but for themselves. Though they are performing good deeds, their intentions - their hearts - are not pure.

To be pure of heart means that everything we do should be motivated by the glory of God. Every good deed we perform should have as its purpose not to draw attention to ourselves but to point to the goodness of our Heavenly Father.

This is very important for us as a parish community. How much of what we do here is meant to give glory to ourselves rather than to God? How many times in our parish planning are we seeking to make our community what we want it to be rather than what God wants it to be? If each of us - myself included - could put aside our personal agendas and preferences and truly seek to give God glory in everything we did, then we would see Him work in powerful and unmistakable ways among us.

Thirdly, purity of heart means avoiding lust in all its forms.

To be pure of heart means that we have respect for our bodies and the bodies of others. We do not look upon ourselves or others as objects of pleasure. Knowing that God has given us the beautiful gift of sexuality as a sign of love and a means of participating in His creative power, we set aside our bodies only for the one we are given to in marriage. Out of respect for ourselves, we do not dress or act in a way that will draw undue attention to our physical features.

The greatest danger to purity of heart in today’s world is the abundance of pornography. It is becoming increasingly available on television and on the internet. A recent study found that one out of three children is exposed to pornography before starting kindergarten. Unfortunately, many people think that it is harmless. However it gives young people a warped idea of what sex is. It teaches young girls that their only value is in being able to arouse men. Those who become involved in the pornography industry end up becoming ravaged by disease, drug addictions and abusive relationships. And addiction to pornography has lead to many losing their jobs when they are caught accessing it at work and has resulted in the break up of many families. Pornography is far from harmless. Christians must never participate in this activity and should fight to ensure that our young people are not exposed to it.

Jesus promises many blessings to those who are poor and who seek only God and His Kingdom. We are blessed because we are gathered here today with a hunger for righteousness and a longing for peace. That longing is rooted in our souls which have only one overwhelming desire  - to see God in all His glory. The hope of His glory motivates us to keep our hearts pure by avoiding what the world holds up as important, by striving to give God glory in all that we do and by living chaste lives whether we are married or single.

We keep our hearts pure also so that they will be a proper dwelling place for Christ who comes to make His home in us. The promise that we will see Him will be fulfilled this day as bread and wine becomes His Body and Blood through the mystery of the Eucharist. With hearts renewed, we will leave this place so that others may see Christ in us and come to believe.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Constitution Of A New Kingdom

The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. These are the founding documents of our country. They spell out how our country will be governed and what rights we will uphold. They define what kind of nation we are to be.

Today's gospel is the Beatitudes which forms the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is, for Jesus, the constitution of a new people. It's a founding document spelling out for us what kind of church Jesus intends us to be. It's a declaration of independence from a narrow view of religion as just a bunch of "thou shalt nots" to a living relationship with God the Father. Just as Moses climbed the mountain to receive the Law from God and deliver it to His people Israel, so Jesus, from the mount, delivers a new law for a new people.

What kind of people is God gathering? What kind of Church does Jesus intend to found? We hear about it in the Beatitudes. God's people are the poor and the lowly. They are those who have no power in the eyes of the world.

Human governments are formed and run by people with power, wealth and influence. They conquer through force, by gathering strong armies with fearsome weapons.

But God means to conquer the world in a different way. God means to conquer the world one heart at a time.

God whispers to the poor, "Let me be your wealth". The world's riches depreciate in value and are easily depleted, but God's wealth never loses value. God whispers to the sorrowful heart: "Let me be your consolation." The world offers empty words of consolation which cannot reach the depths of the person. Only God can reach the unfathomable depths of the human heart which He created.  God whispers to the hungry heart: "Let me feed you." The world's bread only fills the belly for a few hours. Soon, the stomach growls for more. But God's bread is free and satisfying beyond any food the world can offer.

Jesus is gathering a new people, a new Kingdom. Jesus is instigating a revolution of peace and justice, not by means of armies and fire-power, but through simple people who seek to do God's will. Jesus is forming this new people out of you and me with our gifts, with our failures, with our limitations.

If we read the Beatitudes and hear in them a message of resignation before evil, then we really haven't heard Jesus' words. Jesus isn't saying to us that life is hard, but if we tough it out we'll be rewarded in heaven. The Kingdom of God which Jesus preaches about is not an event in some never-never land far off in the future. The Kingdom of God is today. It is here. It is now. Today is the day for the sorrowful to be comforted. Today is the day for the hungry to be fed. Now is the time for mercy and peace to be practised.

Neither are the Beatitudes something for other people to practise and live out. It is not something left up to the bishops, or nuns or other more "spiritual" people. It is for us to do. We are to practice mercy in our day-to-day lives. We are to make peace a reality. And, if necessary, we are to bear insults, ridicule and persecution for the sake of Jesus and the Kingdom which is breaking into our world. If we don't say "yes", if we don't let God conquer our hearts, then this Kingdom cannot be real and effective in the world.

We are gathered here today to witness something spectacular. It will go largely unnoticed. Katie Couric and Bill O'Reilly won't be here to cover it. Nonetheless, something revolutionary is taking place here today. Simple bread and wine will be transformed into the body and blood of Jesus. And, we will be fed by it. God will whisper to our hearts that He wants us for His own people.

Will we take this gift home with us? Will we allow it to transform us, transform our families, transform our work places, transform our world? Only then will this revolution of peace be underway.

Friday, January 27, 2017


In the fall of 1979, Stephen was a typical 17 year old man with big dreams for his future. With the hope of one day owning his own company, he had begun applying to colleges to study business and finance.

However, one evening, all that changed. Turning on the television to watch the news, he was mesmerized by the coverage of Pope John Paul II’s trip to the United States. The image of the Holy Father waving to the crowds which had gathered along the side of the road to watch him pass by caused something to stir in his heart. All of a sudden, he began to cry uncontrollably.

For the next few weeks, he could not get the images of the saintly pope out of his mind. Even when he tried to focus on his studies or on applying to colleges, all he could think of was the smile on Pope Saint John Paul II’s face.

After receiving communion the following Sunday, it became clear to Stephen what he must do. He must give up his plans to enter business school and instead enter the seminary to be a priest. Though his family and friends thought he had lost his mind, he enrolled in the seminary the following Fall and was ordained a priest eight years later.

Looking back on his vocation to the priesthood, Fr. Stephen now understands that it was not because of Pope Saint John Paul II that he became a priest. Rather it was Jesus Christ who was calling out to him through the person of the Holy Father. Once Fr Stephen encountered our Risen Lord, his life would change. He realized he could not go back to his former way of life nor could he continue his plans for the future. Now that he had experienced the love of God, there was no turning back. He would have to walk the path that Jesus had now traced out for him.

In today’s gospel, we see much the same situation. Peter, Andrew, James and John were all fishermen. Since they were children, they would go out to the shores of the Sea of Galilee to fish. They did not know any other life. However, once Jesus called them, they abandoned it all to follow Him. We can only imagine how charismatic and magnetic our Lord was to compel them to turn their backs on the only life they had ever known. But they did because, like Fr. Stephen, once they had met Jesus, there was no turning back. The only choice they had was to follow Him, even though they had no idea where it would all lead.

Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus going out to meet people where they are at. In today’s gospel, we read how He went throughout the region of Galilee to preach the good news and heal the sick. Other times, we read that He even went to areas which Jews normally avoided like Samaria. All this because He wanted to invite people personally to follow Him and give them an up-close experience of the Father’s love. It was this personal experience more than anything He preached or any good deed He performed which explains why so many people followed Him. They literally fell in love with Jesus after meeting Him.
In its essence, then, Christianity is a personal relationship with Jesus, the Risen Son of God, who knows us and loves us. Every moral teaching, every doctrine, every ritual revolves around helping us to know and love Him in return. Like Fr. Stephen, and like those first disciples, we will discover that, once we truly meet Jesus, everything in our lives will change.

Of course, Jesus no longer walks among us as He did two thousand years ago. We do not see Him face-to-face as those first disciples did. However, we still can have a very real and loving friendship with our Risen Lord.

The first way we can have a relationship with Jesus is by reading the Scriptures. The Bible is like a love letter written to all of God’s people. In its pages, we learn about our Heavenly Father’s mercy. We hear the stories of our ancestors who struggled to live their faith and died to pass it down to us. Because it is God’s word, it is His voice we hear whenever we read it or hear it proclaimed in Mass. The more we read, study and pray over the Scriptures, the more we will understand the heart of God. And the more we understand the heart of God, the more we will love Him.

The second way we can have a relationship with Jesus is through the Sacraments. Every sacrament is a visible sign of the invisible love of God. In Baptism, we experience the very real love of our Heavenly Father who makes us His sons and daughters. Through the Sacrament of Confession, we experience God’s merciful love as we hear the words, “Your sins are forgiven”. And, in a most marvelous way, we become united to Jesus Himself whenever we receive His Body and Blood in Holy Communion. There is no more intimate and personal relationship than uniting our heart and soul to the heart and soul of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.

Finally, we can have a relationship with Jesus through our neighbor. When we show love to one another we are experiencing God in a very real way because He is love. Jesus tells us very plainly that whatever we do to the least of our sisters and brothers we do to Him. So, whenever we reach out our hands to someone in need, we are encountering Jesus. If we really want to know and love Jesus we have to do it through the poor whether that poor person is a beggar on the street or a rich person in a lavish but lonely mansion. If Jesus seems distant, it is most likely because we have not been looking for Him in our needy brothers and sisters.

Christianity is a life-changing experience with Jesus Christ. Once we have truly met Him, our lives will never be the same. Sometimes that meeting with Jesus is dramatic and memorable like the experience that Fr. Stephen and the first disciples had. Most often, however, that meeting is less dramatic, taking place in the ordinary, mundane moments of our day. If we nourish our relationship with our Risen Lord by reading Scripture, frequenting the Sacraments and showing merciful love to others we will see a change. Not only that, we will begin to affect a change in others. Once we make the love of God our first priority, that love will begin to radiate out into the world as a great light to so many who only experience darkness. Then, the Kingdom of God will truly be in our midst. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Conversion Of Saint Paul

Saint Paul was a Roman citizen and a scrupulously faithful Jew. He studied the Law under one of the most prestigious rabbis of his day, Gamaliel. Because of his zeal for his Jewish heritage, he went so far as to persecute and conspire to kill the followers of Jesus.

But all that changed one day on the road to Damascus. Paul was on his way there to find followers of Jesus so that he could bring them back to Jerusalem for trial and imprisonment. On the way, Jesus appeared to him in a flash of intense light which left Paul blind for three days. Jesus asked Paul, "Why do you persecute me?", and revealed himself to be the risen Messiah.

After that powerful intervention by Christ, Paul was baptized and became one of the greatest preachers of the gospel. In his many missionary journeys, he brought the good news all along the Mediterranean helping to establish churches in such places as Corinth, Ephesus and Thessalonica. During those years, he also penned letters to believers which became part of the New Testament. Finally, when his work on earth was completed, he was beheaded outside the city of Rome, giving his last breath in witness to the truth of the gospel he had once fought so hard to silence.

This great apostle wrote and taught far more than we could ever cover during one Sunday homily. But I would like to focus today on two important passages from Saint Paul's letters which represent much of what the gospel has to teach us.

The first is taken from Saint Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, verse 23. He writes, "...we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." Paul's words powerfully remind us of what we are about as followers of Christ. At the center of our lives as believers stands the cross of Jesus. Without the cross, our preaching and our worship are just pious platitudes. But with his cross ever before us, our worship reaches the God of our salvation, and we are truly forgiven of our sins by the blood Jesus spilled to save each one of us.

The cross is foolishness to a generation such as ours which lives only for pleasure and the accumulation of material possessions. We who believe have a whole other set of values and goals which center around not what we can accomplish but what God has accomplished - namely, salvation of the world and the promise of everlasting life through Jesus' death and resurrection.

The second message is closely tied to the first. It is taken from Paul's letter to the Galatians, chapter 2, verse 20: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." With these words Saint Paul explains to us how he found the power to work so tirelessly in service of the gospel. It was not by his own skill and his own initiative that he could convince people that Jesus was the Son of God and the Messiah. Rather it was the power of Christ at work in him which accomplished all that he did. In fact, Saint Paul experienced this so strongly in his life that he could say that it was actually Christ living his life in him. He had been taken over by Christ. Because he had so completely abandoned himself to God and to his will, Christ was able to work in a miraculous way through his life.

For us who strive to follow Christ, the same is true. If we were to rely on our own strength to forgive our enemies and to endure ridicule for the way of life we live, we would soon falter. Instead we draw on the power of God at work in us through faith and baptism. We lean on God to be loving and attentive mothers, fathers and children. We call upon God's strength so that we may act with justice in our places of work. No matter what it is we do, Christ lives in us accomplishing his work through us.

For two thousand years now the teachings and the writings of Saint Paul have inspired and encouraged people to give their lives to Jesus and to experience a new power through faith and baptism. It begins with the forgiveness of sins through Christ's cross and continues with the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in believers. Paul experienced it in his life and ministry and left it as an example to us who study his teaching today.

Monday, January 23, 2017


There is one overarching theme to all of Jesus’ ministry. Everything He did and said can be summed up in the words, “The Kingdom of Heaven.”

It was to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to us that Jesus came to earth. He taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” Most of His parables began with the phrase, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like...”. The miracles He performed were proof that the Kingdom of Heaven was already among us conquering the kingdom of this earth which has burdened us with sin, suffering and death. In His preaching, Jesus taught us that in God’s Kingdom the poor would be blessed, those who mourn will be consoled and those who humble themselves will be glorified. It is a Kingdom which turns everything we are accustomed to on its head. It is a true revolution in which the first shall be last and God will be all in all.

When Jesus announces that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand in today’s gospel, He tells us that we must “repent”. What does He mean by that word? To repent means to welcome the coming of God’s Kingdom into our world and to change our attitudes and our lifestyle accordingly. To repent means to submit ourselves to God’s word and to live according to its demands. This repentance is not a one time event as our “born-again” brothers and sisters sometimes insist. Rather it is an ongoing openness of our minds and hearts to the transformative power of God.

Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has written a powerful and beautiful work entitled, The Joy of the Gospel.  Though it has received some notoriety in the press because of its criticism of rampant consumerism and the growing inequality among the rich and the poor,  it also is a firm but gentle critique of how we Christians too often stand in the way of God’s work in the world. Our Holy Father is echoing the call of Jesus for all of us to repent so that the Kingdom of Heaven may be a reality in our world.

All of us should spend time reading over The Joy of the Gospel for ourselves so that we can be enriched by its wisdom and inspired by its call to bring Christ to others. In light of today’s readings, however, let us look at two ways the Holy Father is calling us to repent - to change our attitudes, behaviours and lifestyles so that the Kingdom of Heaven may be made visible in our world.

First of all, every follower of Jesus is called to evangelize. The Holy Father writes:

“All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization.... The new evangelization calls for personal involvement on the part of each of the baptized. Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization...(EG 120)

To evangelize simply means “to share the gospel with others”. Pope Francis is challenging each of us no matter what our state in life is and no matter how much we think we may know or not know to go out of our comfort zones and speak to our family members, friends, co-workers, schoolmates and even strangers about the love of God made visible in Jesus Christ.

In the past, we may have seen this work as belonging only to priests and religious. However, we need to repent of this attitude and take hold of this work ourselves. Long gone are the days when we could expect people to come to church on their own. Even if Catholics left in their teenage years, we would expect them to come back to be married or to baptize their children. We all know from personal experience that this is not the case anymore. If these people are not to be lost, then we have to seek them out ourselves, bringing the joy of God’s love to them. We have to repent of the comfortable spiritual lives we have created for ourselves and take the risk of reaching out to others with the power of the gospel message.

The second way the Holy Father is calling us to repent is by putting aside all rivalries and conflicts we may have with one another. Saint Paul echoes this in today’s second reading: “[Let] there be no divisions among you, but...be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.” We know that divisions among Christians are an excuse for many people not to believe in Jesus. If we cannot love and forgive one another, then how can we preach love and forgiveness to others? Sadly, in our parish, even despite our best efforts to get along, we often have one group grumbling about another group. We too often talk behind one other’s back and sometimes even undermine one another’s work, forgetting that we are all on the same team.

If we are going to be a people who reflect the love of Christ, then we must repent of the resentments and grudges which keep us from working together. This is the advice our Holy Father gives us:

“We all have our likes and dislikes, and perhaps at this very moment we are angry with someone. At least let us say to the Lord: ‘Lord, I am angry with this person.... I pray to you for him and for her’. To pray for a person with whom I am irritated is a beautiful step forward in love, and an act of evangelization. Let us do it today! Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the ideal of fraternal love!” (EG 101).

The Kingdom of Heaven has come among us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. There is nothing we can do to stop it. But we do have a decision to make. Will we accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ? Will we submit ourselves to His rule? Or will we cling to our false sense of ownership over our own lives and stubbornly hold on to the illusion that we are in control? By heeding our Holy Father’s call to bring the gospel message into the lives of those we meet and by forgiving and loving one another, we can show that His Kingdom of love is already at work among us.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

God's Kingdom At Hand

The message of Jesus is simple.

The gospel writers agree that it can be boiled down to two sentences. They are the words that Jesus proclaimed as he traveled through Galilee:

The Kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent and believe in the good news.

These words may be simple, but their meaning is deep. And applying these words to our lives is anything but easy.

Today’s gospel, however, gives us some pointers for understanding the meaning of his words and how they are meant to change our lives.

Jesus appears in Galilee for the first time walking the countryside preaching the good news. On the shores of the Lake of Tiberias he calls simple fishermen to follow him. They drop everything to answer his call.

The immediate and wholehearted response of these men and of so many others who will follow their example teaches us what it means to repent and believe in the good news. It means encountering the person of Jesus, following him and leaving everything behind.

First, believing in the good news means having a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. The apostles did not leave their families, homes and jobs because they believed in an idea or wanted to live an ideal. Rather it was their encounter with Jesus that moved them. Meeting Jesus changed everything for them. Throughout the gospels people are moved by him because they felt the power of his words and experienced his love for them. But more than anything it is meeting Jesus that changes hearts and heals souls.

In our day we cannot have the same face to face encounter that the apostles enjoyed. But we still are able to meet the Risen Lord when we read the Bible which is his word, when we receive the Sacraments which are the continuation of his healing work in the Church and in our sisters and brothers who are his living body. We are not on fire for our faith or passionate about our Church because we like to follow rules. Rather it is because we have met and fallen in love with Jesus Christ. This personal relationship with him that we have through faith and the ministry of the Church drives everything that we are about. It is already ours through baptism. But if we want to understand it more fully and to make it the driving force in our lives, we only need to ask Jesus to help us, and he will make it clear to us in some way.

And so, believing in the good news means, first of all, having a personal encounter with Jesus.

Secondly, Jesus’ message means that we must follow him. Our life of faith can be understood as a journey with Jesus leading the way. It means that, like the apostles, we have to give up our own plans for how we will live our life and put our trust in God and his plan for us. It is not easy because very often the road is steep and the pathway rocky. We will not always see where it is headed, and we will stumble frequently along the way. We will see our friends walking a different way that seems easier, and we will be tempted to join them. But God will give us the strength and the courage to follow him. And we will be blessed with joy because we are with Jesus.

And so, believing in the good news means, following Jesus, walking the same road he walked and letting him set the itinerary for our lives.

Thirdly, believing in the good news means leaving everything behind. The apostles could not follow Jesus and stay fishermen. They had to make a choice. We cannot follow Jesus and continue to live the same way we did before. When we choose to follow Jesus, some things will have to stay behind. We may have to end friendships because they lead us to bad behavior. We may have to change our business practices because they are deceitful. We will all be called to live simpler lives so that we will have more left over to give to the poor. Some will even be called to sell everything and to give their lives totally over to Jesus in religious life. For all of us, gaining Jesus will mean the loss of something or someone we love. It was that way for the apostles, and it continues to be that way for us. There is no other way if we are to put our lives in the hands of our loving Father.

However, there is nothing in this world that can compare with knowing, loving and serving God. Any possession we have will eventually become useless. Most of our friendships will come to an end. But we will have God forever. Nothing else in this world can give us the fulfillment that God can. That is why, no matter how painful it might be, Christians throughout the centuries have gladly abandoned jobs, possessions and even their homelands for the joy that only comes from following Jesus. If there is something or someone in our lives that is keeping us from following Jesus with all our hearts, we must pray for the grace to let it go. Otherwise, we cannot fully know the peace that only God can give.

The Kingdom of God is among us. The Risen Lord is present in our midst. His presence soothes our fears. His words touch and heal our hearts. His Body and Blood nourishes and strengthens us. We meet him in one another, and we fall in love with the one who died for us. We gladly leave everything behind to follow after the one our heart longs for. Despite the difficulties, we know that it is the path of life. We walk with ever growing strength because we have met Jesus and our lives can never be the same.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Which Way To Heaven?

How do you get into heaven?

If we were to ask most people, they would say that, after we die, God makes a list of all the good and bad things we've done. If the list of good works is longer than the list of sins, we go to heaven. But if the list of sins is longer, we go to hell.

This is the impression that most people – maybe even many Christians – have. However, there are some significant problems with this kind of thinking. In fact, if God really did judge our lives this way we'd be in big trouble.

First of all, every sin we commit is an offense to an infinitely good and loving God. Whenever we choose evil, we are rejecting the love of the one who created us and loves us unconditionally. Since even the smallest sin is a rejection of God's love, there is no way we could ever make up for offending him. Because we are finite, imperfect people, no amount of good works, donations or pure intentions could make up for the offense we give to our infinitely good and perfect God.

The second problem we have is that we do not really deserve that much credit for our good works. None of us can say to God," Well, I have never killed anyone or stolen anything." God would only respond to that, "Well, you're not supposed to kill or steal!" Because we're supposed to do good and avoid evil, we cannot expect God to give us a parade every time we do what he has commanded us to do or avoid doing what he has commanded us not to do.

So, we are faced with a tremendous dilemma. Every one of our sins puts us in debt to God. And, no amount of good works we perform could ever pay it back. How, then, would it ever be possible for any of us to get into heaven?

This is where the good news of Jesus Christ comes in. Because He is God, Jesus is infinitely good and loving. He has never sinned and can never offend the Father. By becoming man, He performed the ultimate good work. He did not need to take on our human nature and neither did He have to die. However, by doing so, He could pay the debt we incurred. Because He is infinitely good and perfect like the Father, He could offer a pure sacrifice on behalf of us who are sinful and imperfect. Once that debt is paid, we can be forgiven for the infinite offense we've caused the God who loves us unconditionally.

This reality makes sense of the strange words John the Baptist utters in today's gospel: "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world." Calling Jesus, "the Lamb of God" may not sound strange to us because we say those words at every Mass before receiving communion. However, it would have sounded unusual to the people of Jesus day.

Lambs were animals offered in sacrifice. They were slaughtered and their blood spilled in hopes of making peace with God. It was understood that anyone who broke the commandments deserved death. However, God in his mercy, would accept the blood of the lamb in place of the life of the sinner. Calling Jesus "the Lamb of God" means that, like the sacrificial lamb, He offered His life in exchange for ours. He received the punishment we deserve for our sins. And because of that, He can bring forgiveness, healing and peace to all who call on His name.

So, if Jesus takes away our sins, does it mean that we can go on sinning and breaking God's commandments without ever having to worry about getting punished for it? By no means! Consider this. What if someone you love hurt you. If he came back and asked for forgiveness, you would likely forgive him. However, what if he turned around and hurt you again? Would it not be that much harder to forgive him? Wouldn’t you start to wonder whether he was really sorry?

The same is true for God. Now that He has sent His Son to die for our sins, it is even more offensive to Him when we break His commandments. Thankfully, our Heavenly Father is infinitely merciful and always willing to forgive us. However we have to make an extra effort to avoid evil and to do good if we are to show Him that we accept His forgiveness. We can do so by going to confession frequently and making a point of showing mercy to others.

We cannot earn our way into heaven. Eternal life is not a reward for being a nice person. Rather Jesus, the Lamb of God, paid the price for us to take away the sins of the world.  He offers eternal life as a free gift to us who believe and are baptized. For our part, we must strive to keep his commandments and spread his good news up until the day we stand before the judgment seat of God.

In a few minutes, I will hold up the Body of Christ broken for us and repeat the words of John the Baptist: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” As we come up to receive Him, let us do so with gratitude for His sacrifice. Let us accept the offer of salvation He makes to us by welcoming Him into our hearts. And let us commit ourselves to serving our neighbor not only in hopes of one day seeing Jesus face to face in Heaven but in response to the love He has shown us. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Called To Be Holy

It was no surprise to anyone when Jane graduated first in her class at medical school. It was also no surprise when, after a stellar residency at the teaching hospital, she was offered a position there.

It was a surprise, however, when she decided to give it all up to pursue her dream of working in a clinic for the poor in sub-Saharan Africa.

For weeks, her friends and professors tried to talk her out of it. They tried to convince her that there would be plenty of time for her to go on missionary trips after she had established her own practice. However, Jane was adamant. Though her friends and family could not understand why she was willing to give up so much, she tried explaining to them that she felt called to such work. In her heart, she had always known that she had been set apart by God to use her knowledge and her skills to help the poor. It took her a while, but she finally found the courage to answer that call.

When we hear the word “calling” or “vocation” we tend to think of it primarily in terms of religious life. Nuns have a calling. Priests have a calling. Deacons and monks have a calling. However, vocations are not limited to just those called to religious life and service. Rather, everyone has a vocation. Each one of us is called to a certain lifestyle and a certain life’s work that only we can accomplish. Sometimes it manifests itself in dramatic fashion as Jane’s calling to work with the poor in Africa. However, most often it manifests itself in small hidden ways such as the couple who are called to adopt special needs children, the woman who is called to provide health care for the homebound, or the teenager who stands up for his classmates who are suffering from peer pressure and bullying. We can be called to perform one special work which only lasts a short time or we can be called to a path which takes up our whole lives such as marriage or religious life.

However it may manifest itself in our lives, each one of us has a calling, a special work or life’s work that only you and I can accomplish. It is our contribution in both big and small ways to God’s saving work.

Today’s readings speak to us in a beautiful way about the meaning of vocation in the Christian life.

The second reading is taken from the beginning of Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In his greeting to that church, he states that they are “called to be holy.” While some people are called to different work and different lifestyles in pursuing the Christian life, all followers of Christ are called to be holy. The Second Vatican Council called this principle, “the universal call to holiness.” Our beloved Holy Father, Pope Francis, echoed this when he recently said, “To be saints is not a privilege for the few, but a vocation for everyone.”

How do we become holy? By letting God’s love shine through us in everything we do. Whatever work or lifestyle we are called to, we must do all things in love. God is love and His holiness is most clearly manifested in those who show His love to others.

It is not always easy, especially when we have been laboring under harsh conditions or dealing with difficult people. Stress and anxiety can distract us from being kind and gentle to others. Therefore, an essential element of holiness is prayer. God’s love takes root and grows in our hearts when we put ourselves in His presence, when we confess our failings and when we seek wisdom by reading His word in Sacred Scripture. Time in prayer both alone and with others is crucial to helping us discover our vocation and nurture it.

This call to be holy is not only a way for us to feel good about ourselves and build up our self-esteem. The gifts of holiness and love are not to be kept to ourselves. Rather, they are meant to be given away. A life of holiness and love naturally leads to the second element of vocation, giving witness.

In the first reading, God tells the people of Israel through the prophet Isaiah that He has chosen them “to be a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth”. In the second reading, Saint Paul talks about his calling to be an apostle, that is, one sent out by Christ to be a witness to His resurrection. And in the gospel, Saint John the Baptist describes his vocation as a witness to Jesus, “the Lamb of God.”

Every vocation, then, involves bearing witness to the love and power of God. No one who has experienced the presence of God has a right to keep it himself or herself. Rather, no matter what our state in life may be, we are all called to give witness in both our words and actions to Jesus, the Son of God. As a community of disciples, we cannot wait for people to come to us. Rather we go out and announce the good news to everyone we meet. As Pope Francis described it in his recent work, The Joy of the Gospel,: “The Church which ‘goes forth’ is a community of missionary disciples who...boldly take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast.” Those who are filled with the love of God are like the psalmist who has to proclaim it to others: “I announced your justice in the vast assembly; I did not restrain my lips, as you, O Lord, know.”

To sum it all up, each of us has a calling, a unique vocation. Though we live that calling out in different works and lifestyles, we are all called to pursue holiness and to give witness to the God of faithful love. Like Saint John the Baptist, at the heart of our vocation is the need to point out to others Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away our sins and the Son of God who comes to establish the Kingdom of Heaven. It all comes from God through our baptism and flows back to Him through our lives of humble service and witness to His goodness. It flows from Him because only in the power of the Holy Spirit is it possible to give witness not only with our words but in our everyday choices. If we can find the courage to live for God alone, then it will be no surprise to anyone that it is Jesus at work in us reaching out to continue His work in our world.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

John The Baptist Speaks

Over the past month, we have heard quite a bit from John the Baptist.

During the four weeks of Advent leading up to our celebration of Jesus’ birth, we heard his proclamation to us that we prepare the way for the Lord through penance and good works.

Last week, as we celebrated the baptism of the Lord, he witnessed the Spirit come down upon the waters in the form of a dove, the heavens open up and the voice of God proclaim that Jesus is the Beloved Son.

And, as we begin a new year, we hear from him once again. This time he is pointing Jesus out as the Lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world.

John the Baptist is an important figure in the gospels because he announces the coming of the Messiah. Many of Jesus’ earliest followers were disciples of John. The Church puts the message and example of John before us each year because he still has much to teach us, especially as we begin a new year. In particular, there are three points that we should take away from the gospel proclamation about John the Baptist - that we need to repent of our sins, that we must witness to the truth, and that we must put Jesus at the center of everything we do.

First of all, we need to give up our sinful ways. When John appeared along the banks of the Jordan River, he preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He made it clear to all who approached him that, once baptized, they could not return to their former way of life. They needed to make a real and lasting change.

The message is the same for us two thousand years later. All of us have areas of our lives that do not reflect the love of Christ. Whether it be in our families, our schools or workplace, we fail to respect others, to show concern for those in need or to put the interests of others before our own. We all need to examine our consciences daily, to review our actions and to commit ourselves to doing better with the grace of God. Our faith is only real if it is making a difference in the way we speak and live. John the Baptist teaches us that we must make a real effort everyday to change our sinful behavior so that our lives can reflect the love of our Savior who came to die for us.

Secondly, John the Baptist teaches us that we must always speak the truth. Just as we struggle to avoid sin in our own lives, we must point out the ways in which our society fails to uphold the dignity of the person. Every day in our world, the rights of the poor are being trampled on, innocent people are killed and the powerful take advantage of the weak. As people of faith, we cannot stand idly by or keep silent. Otherwise, we will be condoning injustice. We must speak up to defend the innocent and the downtrodden because they are our sisters and brothers.

John the Baptist did this unceasingly during his life. He died because he dared to criticize King Herod for living with his brother’s wife. He spoke up because he recognized the importance of marriage and family life. Like John, we must never fail to defend the sanctity of marriage both by living good and holy family lives ourselves and by speaking out against the threats our society poses to marriage such as divorce and pornography. Our society needs people of faith with the courage to speak the truth or else more innocent lives will be lost and more damage will be done to the poor and needy.

Thirdly, Jesus must be at the center of all we do. John the Baptist understood that the reason he was sent was to give witness to the Messiah. His mission was not to gather disciples for himself but to lead others to Jesus. So, when Jesus did finally appear, he never failed to point him out to people and encourage them to follow him. When he was asked whether it distressed him that his disciples were leaving him to listen to Jesus, he replied “He must increase, and I must decrease.” John’s whole life was centered around preparing the way for Jesus so that, when he finally did appear, he was happy to fade into the background.

As individuals and as a parish community, we must ask ourselves daily the question: Is everything we are doing centered on Jesus or on ourselves? Are we more concerned about what people think of us or what Jesus would think of us? Are we more concerned about pleasing others or pleasing Jesus? It is very easy in the midst of all life’s little details to forget why we exist. It is easy to lose focus when our days are filled with so many activities. We must take time everyday to remind ourselves of what is most important - that we know, love and serve our Savior, Jesus. When we put Jesus at the center of our lives, everything else falls into place.

It is for good reason that John the Baptist is such a prominent figure in all the gospels and that the Church places his message before us so often during the year. At the beginning of a new year it is especially important to reflect on these three key elements of his message - that we repent of our sins, that we speak the truth with love and that we keep Jesus at the center of all we do. It is an unfailing formula for growing in holiness as individuals and for drawing others to Christ as a parish community.

So that we can have strength to live up to this challenge, we turn to the Lamb of God. He will come to us in the form of bread and wine at this table to nourish our souls. He is with us as we struggle to root out sin in our lives, speak the truth and keep our lives centered on him. We can trust that he will give us the grace and courage necessary to live up to our calling as his followers.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Introducing Jesus, The Beloved Son

We can learn a lot about people by the way they introduce themselves.

After telling us their name, most people will describe what they do for a living or where they work. Younger people might tell us what they want to do when they grow up or what job they are preparing for in college. Because our society places such a high value on productivity and wealth, it is natural that we will identify ourselves with our chosen profession.

Work is important to us. It gives us a sense of accomplishment and meaning. If we make a lot of money or have important positions in our company, it will be a source of pride for us and we will enjoy talking about that with others.

However, if our introduction does not go beyond what we do for a living, chances are that we will never become good friends with the person we are talking to. Most likely, we will have a pleasant conversation and then go our separate ways. We might bump into him or her later on in a store or on the street and say “hello” but it will never go beyond that. They become the kind of people we see from time to time but whose names we can never remember.

Then there are people who introduce themselves and tell us about their relationships. They identify themselves as “Carmen’s son” or “Hughie’s wife”. For them, friendships are important. They connect with the people they meet by finding out what friends or relatives they might have in common. They might say, “You’re from Sussex? Do you know Susan who lives on the main road? I went to school with her.”

Usually these types of introductions lead to conversations which are more meaningful. When we focus on relationships, we tend to share more of ourselves with the people we meet. We gain a deeper insight into the person we are speaking with and feel a deeper connection with them. These conversations lead to more lasting friendships. Rather than share information about one another, we are revealing our values and feelings. Because we feel an instant bond, we make a point of seeing them again. Introductions that begin with our relationships rather than with our employment lead to richer exchanges and deeper connections.

In today’s gospel, God introduces Jesus to us and what He says tells us a lot about who Jesus is. Saint Luke tells us that while Jesus is praying after His baptism, the skies opened and God’s voice thundered from heaven. What does God say about Jesus? He does not introduce Him to us as a carpenter. He does not tell us what His specialty was or what projects He might have worked on. He does not tell us where He went to school or what subject He majored in. He does not even tell us that He is from Nazareth in Galilee. Rather, He introduces Jesus as His Son: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus based His identity on His relationship with the Heavenly Father. If we were to meet Jesus, He would introduce Himself to us as the Son of God. His one mission in life was to make known to us the love of His Father in heaven. For this reason, He went through all the land proclaiming the Kingdom of God, calling sinners to follow Him and healing the sick. Because He had total trust in His Father’s love, He was able to say “Not my will but yours be done” and hand Himself over to death for our salvation. Jesus did not want to be known simply as a great man, a spiritual leader or even the Messiah.  Rather, He wants to be known as the Son of a good and loving God and He wants us to know this great God as well.

Introducing Jesus as His beloved Son tells us that God is not interested in impressing us with his resume but in being friends with us. God wants a relationships with us. He wants to enter into a conversation with us that is less about what we are doing and more about what type of people we are becoming. He wants us to realize that each one of us is known and loved by Him and that He wants us to know and love Him in return.

God revealed Jesus to the world as His Beloved Son at His baptism. Just so, at our baptism, each one of us became a daughter and son of God. That is our truest, deepest and most lasting identity. We can lose our jobs. Whatever skills we learned at school can become obsolete. Even our relationships end. However, we can never lose our identity as sons and daughters of God. Even when we have sinned, our Heavenly Father calls us back home and waits for our return just like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son.

When we identify ourselves as sons and daughters of God above everything else, so much in our lives changes. We come to understand that we are loved unconditionally. Any doubts we might have about our worth or goodness melt away in the warmth of God’s love. We also live with a sense of purpose and meaning. We realize that God has a plan for our lives and that He leads the way before us. Our level of stress and anxiety diminishes as we come to trust that our Heavenly Father will provide for us. Finally, we have hope that no matter what may happen, our Heavenly Father will make all things turn out for our good.

Jesus is God’s Beloved Son. He is the One sent by the Father to reveal His love for us. God introduces Him to us as His Son because, more than anything else, He wants to have a relationship with us. All love affairs begin with a simple introduction and a “hello”. If God seems distant and prayer seems difficult, perhaps the way to start would be to simply welcome your Heavenly Father into your life with a simple “hello”. He is waiting for you and is eager to introduce Himself to you. The process has already begun at your baptism. All that is left now is to open your heart to the One who wants to be known as your Heavenly Father.