Your Call To Holiness

I would not be surprised if there is some confusion in hearing this Gospel this morning. On its face, it is confusing. After all, the chief priests seemed to give the right answer but they are rebuked by Jesus.

The parable was a clear rebuke against the actions of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, as well as a significant portion of the people of God who had adamantly refused to believe and listen to Christ the Lord.

The vineyard owner represented God, the Father and Creator of the entire universe. And thus, the vineyard itself represented the creation, the universe, our world. Meanwhile, the vineyard tenants referred to mankind, who had been entrusted with the care and stewardship of the world.

But mankind sinned and rebelled against the will of God, and they refused to listen to Him and they also refused to follow and obey His will. The ones whom the owner had sent to remind the tenants and to get them to honor their work contract were none other than the prophets, the messengers and the numerous servants which the Lord had sent to His people, including Isaiah, Elijah and many others, to lead them and to guide them into the path of righteousness.

However, as the parable told us, the tenants refused to budge, and they persecuted and killed the servants sent by the master of the vineyard, the same that had happened to the many prophets which God had sent to His people.

The son of the owner sent to the tenant refers to none other than Jesus Himself, and He was indeed speaking of what would eventually happen to Him, that he would be betrayed by His own people, he would be  punished and condemned for sins and problems that He did not commit, and he would die a most shameful and painful death on the cross, just as the tenants plotted against the son to gain the ownership of the vineyard.

They refused to listen to the Lord and follow Him because of the evil in their hearts, the pride that obscured the breadth of their wisdom and discerning ability, and the desire for fame and worldly glory — so they were blinded and deafened against the truth revealed by God through Jesus. Therefore, they sinned very greatly against God, and they deserved hellfire, for they did not just condemn themselves, but they also misled countless others into damnation with them.

So where does that leave us. What message are we supposed to carry out of here today? Here is the lead in to the message. Each of us is called to do a self-introspect on our own lives, on our every deeds and actions, and on our lives as a whole, to see whether we have been like the evil tenants in our actions –succumbing to our own personal desire and human weaknesses, succumbing to the temptations of sin and Satan instead of listening to God as we should have.

Allow me the courtesy of reflecting back to you the observations of over three decades in ministry – of serving in five dioceses in North America and seven different parishes.

I have seen people and clergy cleanly divide into two groups. The first are like the tenants of the vineyard. They are filled with pride and a sense of entitlement. They belong to a group that says all I have is mine. I made it, I will give to charity only that which does not affect me. They are filled with a sense of self-worth and pride that allows them to easily judge others. They are quick of tongue in their one sentence put downs of those who do not agree with them. They are quick to sow discord by continuing to mumble and grumble about the things that don’t agree with them. Be careful around those who launch into lengthy discourses about what is right and wrong. Watch for those who act sanctimoniously when they are in Church but their lives betray their professed sanctity. How do you know them or how do you know whether you fall into that group? Listen to them. Listen to their words and watch them. Those are the ones of whom Jesus said:” Therefore I say to you the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”

Then there is the other group. Those who realize they are called to a different standard — that they are called to be holy. Called to be holy. Now what could that mean? It’s simple but we don’t think of it very much. Each of us is called to a personal holiness. A personal holiness that says not only do I acknowledge the words of Jesus Christ but I will live the words of Jesus Christ in all that I do and say. It’s similar to the three crosses we make before we hear the holy words of Jesus: “May the words of the Gospel be on my mind, my lips and in my heart.” It’s the realization that all that we do during our day should be bringing glory to God. It’s the prayer that I say every morning: “May the thoughts from my mind, the actions from my hands and the words that I speak bring you glory, O Lord,” And I have seen so many people like that in my life. People who quietly, in their own way, bring glory to God by the way they act, they speak and in the peacefulness of their heart and mind. People who understand the meaning of being a brother’s keeper. Because we are our brother’s keeper and let no one of us forget that. As Catholic Christians, we must be people who understand that we are called to care for one another and to minister to one another, there should not be one among us — in this Church – who should not know the love of others. If thre is one among us who leaves this Church feeling unloved and unsupported then we have failed as a Christian community. The Stephen Ministry was founded with that premise – to reach out and to quietly show the love of God—through our actions – and our caring. Not through pious sounding phrases, not through posturing but through quiet acts of caring and loving. Our Panamanian sisters and brothers who go out twice a month on their mission to the poor is another example.

Now let me close by giving you a vivid example of the type of people in that group that will never be rejected by God. I met them for the first time Friday night at a neighbor’s son’s birthday party. Their names are Nathan and Rebecca. They live in Caldera and are neighbors of Tommy and Saran Kline. They are a young couple in their early thirties with four boys – the oldest of whom is 9. They are a North American couple. They came here over two years ago to visit Rebecca’s parents who live in Panama, When Nathan and Rebecca came, they saw the poverty around them. When they returned home, they decided to return to Panama and start a home orphanage here in Panama for children with special needs. For the last 18 months, they have been working their way through the Panamanian government and hopefully within a year they will open their orphan home for special needs children. These are not Mormons doing a mission, nor Jehovah’s Witnesses seeking to convert, they are simply a young couple, who quietly and with no personal sanctimony  have decided that they will live the words of the Gospel by dedicating their lives to the special needs of those children who have nothing. That, my friends, is an example of personal holiness. That’s an example of the cornerstone upon which the Church of Christ is built. Every single day, we should be asking ourselves:  am I following a path of personal holiness? Every single day.

Pray God that all of us would have the dedication and courage that Nathan and Rebecca do. Pray God that you lead each of us to find our path to personal holiness.

The Pursuit

Recently, I read an amusing anecdote that I think has a lot to do with the Gospel messages of today.

A hermit was meditating by a river when a young man interrupted him. “Master, I wish to become your disciple,” said the man. “Why?” replied the hermit. The young man thought for a moment and said: “Because I want to find God.” The master jumped up, grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, dragged him into the river, and plunged his head under water. After holding him there for a minute, with him kicking and struggling to free himself, the master finally pulled him up out of the river. The young man coughed up water and gasped to get his breath. When he eventually quieted down, the master spoke. “Tell me, what you wanted most of all when you were under water.” “Air!” answered the man. “Very well,” said the master. “Go home and come back to me when you want God as much as you just wanted air.”

The three parables in today’s Gospel all have the same message but each is different in how it approaches the message. And it is that central message that each of us has to find himself or herself. The message is really a question: How much do we want God?

The first two parables using the images of hidden treasure and a pearl of great price talk of two individuals who sell everything else to possess something precious. What many do not realize is that the treasure buried in the field legally belongs to the owner of the field and therefore the person who finds it sells everything and purchases the land in order to become its owner   In this parable the finder does not tell the owner of his discovery but purchases the land to make it legal – (sounds like insider trading to me!.) Nevertheless, Jesus does not pass judgment on his actions but rather the pursuit.

The second parable is slightly different. A businessman looks for fine pearls. When he finds the one he wants, he sells everything else he has in order to acquire this precious pearl. The man was on the lookout for the “pearl of great price”. He knows it must exist somewhere and he uses all his energies to find it. Both parables tell us of a person who actually goes beyond all ordinary possibilities to obtain an object of great value. This shows how valuable and precious the kingdom of heaven is. The idea obviously is that when one really discovers Jesus, his/her vision of life changes.

This was Paul’s experience as he tells the Philippian community: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ.”

This brings us to the third parable today of the net thrown into the sea and this story focuses on the ultimate judgment. Here Jesus compares the church to a fishing net which when thrown into the lake collect all sorts of fish. The net could not and does not discriminate. It was left to the fishermen to do the dividing and the separating process. While the first and second parables speak of the total commitment and dedication which are the ideal of every follower of Christ, this third parable helps to put our two feet firmly back on the ground. It reflects the same emphasis that the interpretation of the parable of the wheat and the weeds made.

The point is that in the kingdom of heaven there will be accountability. This parable reminds us that the Church and even the Kingdom in the process of its evolution is full of all kinds of people. Our Church is a Church of saints and sinners, the good and the bad. Those who have heard the teachings of Jesus and put them into practice will enter the kingdom of heaven and those who do not will be excluded. The judgment is not arbitrary and rests ultimately on the response of the one who has heard the message of Jesus.

This balancing act is the task of each one of us who have been instructed in the kingdom of heaven. Judgment is for later. Right now, it is for us to use the time given to us to go in search of the treasure and the pearl of great price, of the gift to be able to identify, with Jesus, the really true, the good and the beautiful, and to help others too in the same search.  So once again, as we should do, we need to engage in some self-reflection and some thoughts turned inward. Are we in search of Jesus Christ? Do we hold the gift of Jesus in our lives as the most important thing we have? What would we do if we are confronted with the option of giving up all we have to obtain eternal life with Christ?  How much of our daily life is centered on Jesus Christ? Is He really the focus of our thoughts and actions each day? Even in this small community of English speaking people in Panama, can we tell of each other’s love of Christ in our interactions? Do we visibly show that? When we extend an arm to help one another, is it the arm of Christ or the arm of obligation? Can we allow our eyes to be the true reflection of our so? When we say “Good Morning” or “Hello”, is it genuine or does it mask a feeling that is negative?

Shortly, we will approach the Eucharistic table to celebrate a sacrificial event.  We express our faith in Jesus who is our pearl of great price. Jesus is worth everything to us and allowing ourselves to be united to him in communion is the greatest gift we can give ourselves. Let’s not forget those words – united to him in communion. We carry forward from this Church the very essence of Jesus Christ – his body and blood. What do we do with that when we leave? How much of our life, this day, honors this incredible act? We should be using that moment of unity with him as a stepping stone to build His kingdom searching relentlessly and seeking his presence in everything we do. The reward is something precious and something which cannot be lost at any time .Yes, we are called to face obstacles but we are called to be steadfast in the ways in which we overcome those challenges and to stay focused on Christ. Yes, living a Christian life in today’s world can be difficult at times. I don’t know about you but sometimes I feel as if I am wearing a hair sheet. That shirt scratches me and reminds me that my actions and my words call me to a higher standard of life and to a higher vision. The continual seeking of God in our lives and guiding our actions every day does not come easily to us. It is not second nature. It is a deliberate, ongoing process that holds, as its price the gift of eternal life. Finally, it is the choice which God has made for us as he has chosen us and formed us in his own image and has planned a plan for us. We know what the answer to his message should be. Pray God that we can to the divine call given to us and live this kingdom to the full.

 

 

 

What Are You Doing With The Seed That Has Been Sown?

 

Today’s Gospel is one of the more familiar Gospels for all of us. This parable about the sower of seeds is the first of seven parables that Matthew placed in the center of his gospel. Each of the parables adds a specific dimension to the reality that Matthew is experiencing: although there are disciples who have begun to believe in him, Jesus is still experiencing much rejection among the people. You know, we sort of have been led to believe that Jesus’ public ministry – until His final days – was a walk in the park. It simply wasn’t so. While the Pharisees had issues with him from the beginning, there were countless Jews who did not understand his message nor had no time for it.

In the parable, the sower goes out and sows a great amount of seed. For various reasons much of the seed does not come to fruition. However, some of the seed that fell on rich soil produces an extraordinary amount of fruit.

Matthew concludes this section by having Jesus amplify the parable of the sower by transforming the meaning of the seed from the word which initiates life in the kingdom, to the person who is called to life in the kingdom. Some people hear the word without understanding its deeper meaning; some receive it, but fall away when tribulation comes; some hear it, but worldly anxiety and greed choke off the life it gives; some hear the word, understand it, and bear an extraordinary amount of fruit.

That’s quite a life’s lesson for us, isn’t it? How many of us have gone through life following one stage or another of the seeds in today’s parable?

The Divine Sower has spread the seed abundantly throughout the world. But there must be a lot of barren ground and barren hearts when we look at the world today. The atrocities that are being committed every day – some of them in the name of God – seem to multiply every day. All we need to do is read the headlines and it’s enough to not just shake you in your boots but shake your heart as well. What’s happened to the world that seemed to exist just 40 or 50 years ago?

So we can sit in our pews, shake our heads and say that the word of God has not taken root. What a shame! What a travesty! But don’t get too complacent. Because each of us, in our own way, has betrayed the seed of life that have been given to us so generously. Perhaps we are not the barren ground and perhaps the seed of life eternal has planted some roots. It’s a question of how deep those roots go in our life.

What happens when it comes to making sacrifices for our faith?  What happens when the lures of today’s materialistic life take over? What happens when the delight of riches begins to choke our hearts? What happens when we puff up our chests as we stride around the beautiful home that we have or we count the size of our 401k or our stock portfolios? Is it done with total gratitude to God for giving it to us? Or do our hearts swell with pride at how gifted we were or are? How many of us will give up part of what we have for others. Remember the model of St. Francis? The son of a wealthy man who had the world at his fingertips and, one night, he gives it all up. He walks naked through the street declaring that all he is what the Lord gave him. He spends his life, a simple man, extoling the virtues of Christ and bringing thousands to Christ – just as he does even today.  But if we do not get that all that we have is a gift from God. If we do not get the fact that what we have should not just be used for only our own pleasure but to help others, we are not getting it. Folks, I don’t think most people do get it. I don’t care if someone comes to Mass every day, I don’t care if you say the rosary three times a day, if we are not living the life of Christ by caring about and by reaching out to those that have less, to those who are in need, then we are just like the seed which fell on rocky ground because our faith has no deep roots in their lives. The sacramentals that the Church gives us – the rosary, novenas, adoration, vigils — those are there to help strengthen our faith. The Living Body and Blood of Christ offered to us daily is ours to take and to be transformed. To be transformed. To stop and say “What am I doing for Christ today?  To go to bed at night and ask “What did I do for Christ today? Every day. Every night. Every breath.  If not, are we not like those that accepted the faith and it took root in them, but later on, “the cares of the world and the delight in riches chokes the word and it proves unfruitful,”— these are our Lord’s own words.

 

The last class of Christians is like the seed sown on good soil. They not only accept Christ and his teaching, but they live up to it, and, come what may, they are faithful to it. They take it to their hearts and they live it every day. These will produce fruit and will earn for themselves the eternal happiness promised to us..

Each one of us can look into his or her own conscience today and discover to which class he or she belongs. Are some of us perhaps, like the seed that fell on the rocky ground? When Christianity makes no very difficult demand we are all for it, but when it demands mortification, the curbing of passion, real sacrifices for our neighbor, do we forget our Christian calling then and ignore its precepts? And how does our type of Christianity stand up to the temptations of the world—the desire to get all the enjoyment we can out of this life, licit or illicit, breaking God’s commandments weekly or maybe daily? Are we chasing after wealth and power, using all our energies to rise in the world to be above our neighbor by fair or foul means? If the above are our aims in life, our Christianity has been or is being choked out of us.

You know, I pray every day that the Lord gives me enough years to continue to preach His Word and His Gospel. I pray to have the years to preach not because I am special. I am not. It’s not because I am deeply spiritual. I am not. But it is because my heart burns with the words of Christ. My  call to ordination was shaped by the Franciscans 40 years ago and by the words and actions of St. Francis. I was in The Third Order of St. Francis when I was 14 years old. What did I learn? What were the seeds that were sown in my path? This – this world and all that we have – are nothing compared to the glory that God has stored up for us. There is a life that awaits us that defies any description. There is an all abundant love that surrounds us and is greater than any of us will ever know in our mortal life. There is a call – there is a call – that is made to each of us by the Divine Sower – to follow him, not just in our words but in the daily deeds of our life. The question is do we have the wisdom and the strength to do that?

Personal Martyrdom

Today we celebrate the Feast Days of Saints Peter and Paul who were martyrs for their faith and who paid the highest price for their beliefs by dying for Christ. By wearing red vestments the Church recognizes, in a visual way, the supreme witness to the faith given by the blood of these martyrs.

Tradition holds that, under the persecutions of Nero, Peter, not being a Roman citizen, was to be crucified – he is said to have asked the authorities, who complied, that he be crucified upside down – claiming he was not worthy to die in the manner of his Lord. Paul, being a Roman citizen, was executed by having his head cut off with the sword. It is said that his severed head bounced three times and, in each place, a fountain sprung up.

But enough of the bloody details instead let’s concentrate on the basis for martyrdom. It is the belief that God is truth, and each of us is called to be a witness to that truth in our words and deeds regardless of the consequences.

And what better models to imitate than the lives of Saints Peter and Paul? They are examples of God’s ability to take flawed individuals and turn them into powerful witnesses of the Gospel. Neither Saint Peter nor Saint Paul accomplished what they did simply by virtue of hard work. They were both formed in the fire of difficulties and failures that left them humbled. As a result, they became more aware of their need for God and were captivated by His love.

The Peter we find in today’s Gospel is the same Peter we have come to know as the one who is much like us. He is the one who does not always understand the teachings of Jesus. He is the one who is terrified in the boat in the storm. He is the one who falls asleep in the Garden of Olives, and who later denies Jesus three times.

Yet, in today’s Gospel passage Simon Peter clearly understands that Jesus is the Messiah. He gets it right for a change, and Jesus knows that it is God who has revealed this to Peter. Our Gospel reading recounts Peter’s great profession of faith and the special office that Jesus gave him, that of becoming the rock of His new Church. Since Peter is receptive to God’s revelation, Jesus changes his name from Simon to Peter, which means ‘rock’ and gives him the authority, power and keys to lead the Catholic Church that Jesus has established.

Saint Paul, once a persecutor of Christians himself, is also a witness to the truth of Jesus as recorded in his Second Letter to Timothy. His letter was probably written toward the end of his ministry to the Gentiles for he says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Paul is not boasting, but recognizes the strength of Our Lord at his side as he anxiously awaits the prize of eternal life. Paul speaks with confidence that no matter what happens; God will continue to rescue him. Therefore, Paul’s advice to Timothy, and to us, is to always keep the faith and rely solely on God.

God’s power to transform His people is unlimited. Saints Peter and Paul completely surrendered themselves to Jesus so that He could work through them to give birth to His Church. When we surrender ourselves to God as these two prominent saints of our Church did, giving God permission to transform us and to use us as He sees fit, great things can happen. Even if the work we are called to do seems little in our own eyes, we should never underestimate its importance to God.

But there is another side to the power of God and that lies within the personal martyrdom that many people go through in their lives. Sometimes it is not the same type of martyrdom that Saints Peter and Paul went through but most of us, at one point or another, go through an experience or a suffering that is so deep, that it brings a searing pain and feels as if it is a personal martyrdom. Sometimes it is the death of a loved one – or equally, if not worse, the loss of a child. Cathy and I had a 20 year old nephew murdered on the streets of Boston some years ago. The pain that his mother and father went through was beyond words and it was a pain that his father carried to his grave. Sometimes it is an illness that calls into attention our own mortality and the ability to go on; sometimes it is an estrangement from someone whom we loved or still loves but now that person is dead to us. In each case, there is an emotional pain, a feeling of being “a victim” and the question of “why me.” How we deal with that pain and that loss is our response to a martyrdom that feels larger than life itself.

I sometimes think that St. John Paul II faced that question as he battled the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease. Surely, he could have retired or stepped aside because of his illness. But he did not. And my belief is that he chose not to in order to give us a model of suffering. Regardless of the pain, regardless of the physical changes that took this handsome, strong Pope to a man bent over and ravished with pain, he chose to carry on. I believe fervently that he

had the words of St. Paul in his mind as he faced his last days: ““I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” It was his faith that gave us a model of suffering.

For those of us who are more mortal, keeping the faith in times of great distress and great personal agony is sometimes quite difficult. As any human being, we not only ask “why me” but we wonder why our God has not intervened.

I remember when I was a deacon in California, during the early days of the AIDS crisis; I chose to do hospice work among those who were afflicted with this ravishing disease. Time and again, I would hear the “why” question. And while I could not give them the definitive or wise answer, I could assure them it was not the punishment of God for their lifestyle as so many believed. I talked to them of God’s love for all of his children, for God’s care for all of his children, and for God’s grace that is and can be imparted during times of great agony. And I prayed and sometimes begged then to ask for God’s grace to carry them through their suffering.

Today, I stand here and ask you to reflect on the love of God in your life. Today, I stand here and ask you to dwell on the love of the Holy Spirit that is within you. Today, I stand here and ask you to remember always that he knows you by name and will never forsake you.

It was the fall from grace of the original man that brought both discord and evil into the life of humanity – not God. But the birth of Christ brought us deliverance. It did not stop evil from existing — even the human Christ underwent a suffering that few of us can truly imagine or endure. But his emergence from that pain and that death brought us the Great Promise.

The Great Promise that if we keep our eyes fixed on the love of God for us, there is no battle, no loss, no enemy that we cannot overcome. Sometimes that Great Love also calls us home – home to be with the eternal source of love. But even in that answer there are the enfolding arms of Christ who picks us up as a child and carries us gently home to His Father.

And in all of this, there is also the call of that Great Love to be an agent of that love. There is the call for each of us to step outside of our comfort zone – regardless of age or circumstance – and to extend our arms – as if they were the arms of Christ himself – to those who are going through their own personal martyrdom.

For you see, God invites every one of us to share in the calling of the Apostles: to teach, to witness to the truth in the Gospel, to love with the love of Jesus, and to run the race. We are called to be saints, each in our own way. But this will happen only as we allow Jesus to form us. As we let His firm but gentle and loving hands break our outer shell of self-centeredness, we will be Christ-like within our family, our parish, our neighborhood, our place of work, our school, and with all those who come into contact with us.

Christ wants us to stand up for your faith. Christ wants us to profess our faith by the way we live our lives. Christ wants us to be used as instruments to draw others to him.

Let me leave you with this. Christ truly wants each of us is called to sainthood. Each of is called to rise above our failings and our flaws. Each of us is called to be like these stained glass windows that surround us. The image remains static but the sun shines through. Every time we walk in this Church, we should look at one of those windows and ask “ Have I let Christ’s light shine through me this week?” Our bodies remain the same but the light of Christ shines through us. It shines through us in the things we say and do. In the way we treat one another. In reaching out to those that are in pain – physical or spiritual. Of swallowing our self-centeredness and learning to live selflessly. Of trying to walk in the other’s footstep before we whine and complain of our own hurt. In reminding others that our love of Christ is so great that we want them to experience that love.

We came to this Church today hungry for this celebration; we heard stories of our ancestors in faith that assure and give us courage and we hunger for what nourished them. We know that the same Word and food that sustained them is ours as well.

As he faces death, Paul’s words give us wisdom. Using the perspective he gives us, we should ask “When the day comes that I look back on my life, what will I see? Will I feel satisfied, a life well spent, energies invested in the right place? Or, will I feel disappointed by the choices I made? Energies misdirected and invested in shallow places? A lifetime distracted by less important and passing things? You see, being a Christian for “the long haul” means resisting passing attractions to compromise. Paul shows us that the life of a faithful Christian does take perseverance and sacrifice. He says it is a life “poured out like a libation.” A dedicated life of discipleship does set us apart, it has us going against the stream of the majority, and consequently requires long and consistent sacrifice. Our lives in service to God are a libation that prepares us for our final journey. Such a life is only possible, Paul reminds us, because God has been there with us, enabling and helping us day by day to live out our faith despite periods of personal martyrdom that sometimes seem to cripple us. Thank God for the love of Christ that is always with us to sustain us, to support us and to love us for no other reason than to let us know of His love that is both constant and eternal..

Walking The Talk on Ascension Sunday

 

I must confess that, over all the years of my ministry, I have often wondered why the Feast of the Ascension is not treated with even greater joy and solemnity than it has. It’s a day that explodes with good news and a day that brings gifts. It should be, in my opinion , celebrated with almost as much joy and reverence as Christmas and Easter.

Why do I say that? Because this Feast marks the cementing of the bridge by which we, as human beings, can pass over, after death, into the Kingdom of God. It was the very Ascension of Jesus Christ, from this earth, to the right hand of the Father, that made it possible. So, in many ways, this is our Liberation Day. This is the day that the wood of the manager and the wood of the cross become fused into a bridge to the Divine.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!  And that rising is for us –for you and for me.

The Ascension does not mark the end of Jesus’ relationship with His Church but rather the beginning of a new way of His relating to the world – in and through His Church. This way includes every one of us who bear His name. We have also ascended – with the Lord. When viewed with the eyes of living faith the Ascension is capable of transforming the way we view ourselves and live our daily lives.

You see, Jesus Christ bridged heaven and earth. Through His Incarnation, His Saving Life, Death and Resurrection, we have been set free from the consequences of sin, including the sting of death

But we can’t keep our eyes looking up at the heavens as we commemorate this Feast of the Ascension. Because during Christ’s ascension, into the heavens, he directed that tiny band of 11 men who accompanied him not to look upward but to look down and to look around.

So let’s set the stage a bit. Here you have a band of 11 ordinary men. Could any group of people be more human, more ordinary, more dysfunctional, more unpromising?  How much more obvious could human frailty be than in this group? Here we have a group that has committed within it  treachery, cowardice, denial–  to name but a few of the weak points – these are the same men who would become the pillars of our Church!

In verse 18, the Risen Jesus claims universal power in heaven and on earth.  Since this universal power belongs to the Risen Lord, he gives the eleven a mission that is universal.  They are to make disciples of all nations.  And Baptism is the means of entrance into the community of the Risen One – the Church.  The end of Matthew’s Gospel also contains the clearest expression in the New Testament of Trinitarian belief. It may have been the baptismal formula of Matthew’s church, but primarily it designates the effect of baptism, the union of the one baptized with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So here we have one of the first concrete steps of that bridge to the Divine.  The fact that, through our Baptism, we are brought in union with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

But wait, the gifts of the Ascension don’t stop here but they continue. Because the next thing that Jesus tells them is this “And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (20). Does that have  a special ring to it ? Those words have a special ring to them because (1) he leaves us the gift of the Holy Spirit, our Advocate, our Guide, our constant presence. We talked about that last week.

But  (2) it is also the Eucharist that confirms these words “I am with you.”  Christ said to his Apostles, “Go forth . . . and teach all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” From Christ the way of Christian initiation leads directly to the Eucharist: “I am with you,” “I am with every one of you.”  “I become part of your flesh and blood.” “I share your very existence.” That’s the second gift of the Ascension.

So we have two gifts on this Feast Day. But are we to receive them and say “thank you.” ? Well, “thank you” is nice but not really enough. Because filled with the Holy Spirit at our Confirmation and fortified by the gift of the Holy Eucharist (every day if we want it), we are expected to go forward as those 11 humble men did and make disciples of all men.

Disciples of all men. Surely, you must be jesting. Me? Yes, YOU!

The Christian vocation is about learning to live this new relationship in Christ together, with the Father, through the Holy Spirit and for the sake of a world that still awaits its full redemption. The Feast of the Ascension is not some kind of Intermission but a continuation of the Redemption of Jesus Christ. It’s a call to continue that mission while we are here on this earth.

Think about it. Look around this Church today. Any empty space means that we are not doing our job.Now many have just sort of given up going to Church. Some use the pretext of saying I can pray anywhere to God, I don’t need to go to Church. Others,  have seen enough of the dark side of the institutional Church that they have just folded their cards and left the table.

But our job – yours and mine – is to make disciples of all men and women. How do we do that? We start with the way we live our lives. We live our lives in such a manner that others notice that there is something special about us. Our kindness, our civility, our concern, our compassion are all more heightened than in others,  Drawn to that kindness, compassion and concern, our friends, our neighbors, our associates must wonder why? Why are we the way we are?

And, along the way, in one form or another, we need to open the door to why we live the life we do. We need to find a way to talk about where we go every Sunday. We need to find a way to talk about why we come here every Sunday. And, we need to remind our friends and Catholics that we too believe you do not need a Church to pray. But we also need to remind them that it is ONLY in the Church that we can receive the Holy Eucharist. We need to let them know that we believe that the gift of the Holy Eucharist strengthens us on our journey, that the gift of the Holy Eucharist is the sum and the substance of what our faith is all about.

It’s not enough to just live our faith. Our faith needs to be brought out into the open. We are not closet Catholics. We are Catholics who come here, every Sunday, with open hearts and minds. Catholics who revere and treasure the gift of the Eucharist. Catholics who understand that a bridge to a divine life has been built for us through the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. His gift is beyond anything. But he also commands us : Go and make disciples of those you know. – both here and afar. Let them know through your love of Jesus Christ that their presence with you, at Mass, completes the body of Christ and brings the Ascension of Christ into its full glory.

 

 

 

 

Spirit and spirit

 

Spirit and spirit

If I were to title this homily this morning, it would be Spirit (with a capitalized “S” ) and “spirit” with a small “s.” Because that is what we hear in today’s readings. We learn of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus tells his disciples will be their constant companion and advocate. But we also learn through the readings of the spirit that must guide our lives and our actions.

This Gospel is part of what is known as the Last Supper Discourse. Can you imagine the emotions of the Apostles when they heard Jesus give them this farewell instruction. He would not leave them orphans and would send another Advocate to be with them. Why was he leaving them? Where was he going? Would they ever see him again? What were they to do next? Those are probably some of the questions that went through their minds. In his conversation Jesus answers these questions.

He begins by making the statement; “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” But Jesus teaches them and us to view commandments in a new way, in a way that was different than merely a list of behaviors to be followed or avoided out of duty. Here, Jesus tells his disciples that commandments are to be lived as an act of love. If we love someone we do what pleases them. This love moves us to do things we might not want to do, and even things that we might see as being difficult or a sacrifice. And Jesus calls us to look at the commandments through the prism of love and to live them out of our love for God.

One of the most vivid demonstrations of this is how we view the Eucharist which is part of the central theme of today’s Gospel. I suggest to you that the Eucharist should be viewed in three ways.

First, The Eucharist Is the Sacrament of Life. Jesus is the Bread of Life. The Gospel passage of today places the Eucharist in the context of giving and receiving life. “Just as the Father who has life sent me and I have life because of the Father, so the man who feeds on me will have life because of me.” The Eucharistic sacrifice is the very action of Christ by which He destroyed our death and restored our life. Whenever we gather for this sacrifice, we are celebrating the victory of life over death, and when we receive this Sacrament, we receive the life that never ends.

Secondly, The Eucharist Is Also a Sacrament of Unity. St. Paul declares in today’s second reading, “We, many though we are, are one body, since we all partake of the one loaf”. Imagine all the people, in every part of the world, who are receiving Communion today. Are they all receiving their own personalized, customized Christ? Are they all receiving some personal, designer communion fashioned for them? Are they not rather each receiving the one and only Christ? It is through this sacrament that Christ the Lord, is drawing all people to Himself. And if He is drawing us to Himself, then He is drawing us to one another. When we call each other “brothers and sisters,” we are not merely using a metaphor that sort of dimly reflects the unity between children of the same parents. The unity we have in Christ is just as strong as the unity of blood brothers and sisters, because we do have common blood: the blood of Christ! The result of the Eucharist is that we become one, and this obliges us to be as concerned for each other as we are for our own bodies.

Imagine a person who receives Communion, accepts the Host when the priest says, “The Body of Christ,” says “Amen,” and then breaks off a piece, hands it back, and says, “Except for this piece, Father!” Because you see, this is what is done, spiritually, by the person who rejects other people—whether by hatred, anger, pettiness, unforgiveness, or a failure to recognize the dignity of another. In receiving Christ, we are to receive the whole Christ, in all His members; in welcoming Him, we are to welcome all those whom He made, whom He loves, whom He died to save—all our brothers and sisters, whether convenient or inconvenient, wanted or unwanted, liked or disliked. That’s hard. I know that. I struggle with that every day.

The Eucharist Is, Finally, the Sacrament of Love. St. John explains, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” Christ teaches, “Greater love than this no one has, than to lay down his life for his friends. The best symbol of love is not the heart, but rather the crucifix. Think of that for a second. The best symbol of love is not the heart but rather the crucifix. What does that tell you about the way you love your love?

Love says, “I sacrifice myself for the good of the other person. In the Eucharist we see the meaning of love and we receive the power to live it. “This is my body.” These four little words are spoken throughout the world whenever a Mass is celebrated. Christ gives His body away so others might live. Christ says, “This is my body given up for you; this is my blood shed for you.” These are the words of sacrifice; these are the words of love.

Everyone who wants to follow Christ needs to say the same. Spouse says it to spouse, parents to children, priests to their congregations, friends to friend. We need to imitate the mysteries we celebrate. “Do this in memory of me” applies to all of us in the sense that we are to lovingly suffer with Christ so others may live. We are to be like lightning rods in the midst of this negativity and anger that we see in so many countries of the world, including the United States and Canada. We need to be able to say, “Yes, Lord, I am willing to absorb some of this violence, some of this anger, some of this hatred and transform a small part of by my love so that others may see the love that I bear in my heart
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But make no mistake about it. It is a process. We don’t wake up one morning suddenly transformed (well, at least, most of us don’t” ) It is a conscious act of living the day in a different spirit. Sometimes it is hard and gritty. Sometimes, it seems pretty easy.

But there is one other thing. We can’t do it in isolation. We need to do it in community with one another. That is why Acts today stresses the unity of the Christian life and why the Gospel emphasizes how God dwells and in fact remains in us if we only stay open to his presence. Today so many people fight loneliness and the temptation to doubt whether they matter in the eyes of another or not. While loneliness is a perennial threat to every child of Adam, it seems that in today’s fast-paced and very mobile societies have heightened each person’s sense of alienation and wondering where he or she belongs. Some still carry the images of themselves when they were children and realized that they were not the most beautiful, the mot handsome, the most athletic, the most gifted. Some still carry the hurt that came from a spouse or a sibling who was not uplifting but rather demeaning. Some still carry the burden that they don’t look like the person in the fashion magazine or in a tabloid.

The commandment of love reaches out to us with a clear message. We NEED each other to lift each other up. Pope Francis recognized this when he said that he would not live in the Papal apartments but rather in union with other priests and brothers in a simple apartment. When asked why, he emphasized that community with others dedicated to Christ was an essential part of his life.

That unity, that community comes directly from the words of Jesus. There is the unity of the Trinity that he speaks about as he teaches us about the Advocate, and reveals to us when he says tht he and the Father are one. Jesus invites us to experience the Love of our Father, The grace that flows from him, and the unity of the Holy Spirit that binds them into one God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
There is also the unity of the believers in Christ. Jesus taught that, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers you do to me.” St. Paul experienced this on the road to Damascus when he heard the voice say, “Why do you persecute me.” The unity of the body of Christ – of us with Christ – should not be underrated. It is a beautiful part of God’s love that binds us to him.
All of this comes from the unconditional love God has for us. Reflect on all that God has done for us and is doing for us out of this great love. When you reflect on Christ’s overwhelming love for us, you can not help but want to reach out in love and allow his commandment of love to be the rule of your life Continue reading “Spirit and spirit”

Love To The End

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Let’s talk about this beautiful day – Easter Sunday.

Easter is the feast of all feasts. The feast of Christmas did not even exist for the first two centuries of the church’s life, but Christianity is inconceivable without Easter. This feast is the contact point between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament for it occurred on the anniversary of the Exodus of Israel from Egyptian bondage and fulfills the promise in that central event in Israel’s history.

Easter is about the triumph of a positive spiritual realm over the disbelief and cynicism of a wicked world. All who are tempted to give up on God are offered hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. God’s deliverance of Jesus from the tomb reveals the secret hopes of the human heart, that there can be love, that there can be peace, that life can be based on kindness, that wrecked relationships can be mended, that there is not only a purpose to life but that it has to do with serving a good, loving, rescuing God– that’s what Easter proclaims.

And that’s what every echo of Easter– every first day of the week, all year long, when we gather to celebrate this first day of the week–what every echo of Easter tells the world. Whoever you are, Christ has risen to encourage you, to invite you, to tell you “Here’s the life which is saved for you .” It is eternal, it is a gift that offers you a life never ending of peace, freedom from worry of any kind and the opportunity to be forever with those you have loved That’s what God has achieved. That’s what God continues to make happen, in lives all around us. People believe in Easter and it gives them power–they turn themselves over to Christ, and what God can do in Christ gives them the resurrection life, the new life here and now.

Jesus tells Mary not to hold him because he needs to ascend. He has to become universally and always available. Everyone can be rescued by the Risen Christ from peering into darkness and grasping at temporary comforts. Christ has been raised. We are set free to be Easter people. That means we can – if we choose – to set our minds on things that are above, lofty things, good things. We hold our own head up, we can take the longer view, we can trust in the power and care of the God who has made us, to believe in the power of love that Christ has for us.

The Easter Good News is, in fact, the core or center of the Gospel: Jesus Christ has died and now lives! His “love to the end” in the end has triumphed.!

“Love to the end.” I All the days of the Easter Triduum, from Holy Thursday through Easter Day, have a particular emphasis, but all of them together form one prolonged celebration of the central mystery of our faith: the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. As you and I have been reliving Christ’s Dying and Rising in these days of the Easter Triduum, we see so clearly revealed before us the love Christ has for each of us — it’s love for each member of the human family –whoever they are, whatever they are, whether they are rich or poor, healthy or sick, beautiful or just average, it is a love that surrounds, accompanies us and strengthens us, it is a love forever faithful and enduring, it is truly “love to the end;” not only to the end of Christ’s earthly life, but love continuing on, because today we proclaim that Christ is the Risen Lord, and, therefore, His love remains to the end of time into eternity.
Christ’s “love to the end” in the end has triumphed. Because He has triumphed over sin and death, He gives us newness of life. This celebration of Easter pulsates with this gift: It is and can be a radical newness! Nothing is the same again! Sin will never have the final victory nor will human death! As we pray over and over throughout the Easter season and indeed throughout the year: “Dying, You destroyed our death, rising You restored our life, Lord Jesus, come in glory!” If you are an Easter or Christmas Catholic, this is your opportunity. This is your time to seize the newness and hope of this day. This is your time to once again believe in what the death and resurrection of Jesus meant. It was for you. He rose so that you could see that there is life after death. If you are an every Sunday Catholic, this is your chance to renew and to take that renewed belief and translate into action. To allow everything you do to reflect Him in his glory. To be that light of Christ which we have heard throughout these three holy days.
This “newness of life,” the result of Christ’s “love to the end,” is made visible for us through symbols. We see before us in the sanctuary the newly blessed Paschal Candle, whose flame symbolizes Christ the Light. Yes, Christ is our Light, going before us to lead us in our pilgrimage through life, dispelling the darkness of sin and death, warming us in our loneliness and difficulties, guiding us in our uncertainty and fears.

This “newness of life,” the result of Christ’s “love to the end,” is likewise made visible through the symbol of water. Soon, you will be sprinkled with water, which was blessed last night during the Easter Vigil. This water symbolizes Christ our Life, who strengthens us to live daily according to His Gospel and the teachings of the Church His Body of which we are members.

This “newness of life,” the result of Christ’s “love to the end,” is also made visible in the reality of the Eucharist, both sacrament and sacrifice, the Eucharist we celebrate with such faith and joy today, where in our midst the dying and rising of Christ is made present, where Christ’s Real Presence continues among us in the Blessed Sacrament. In the Eucharist, Christ’s “love to the end” is revealed in a unique way and He remains to be our nourishment on the journey that ends at our Father’s House.

On this Easter Sunday Jesus calls us to be his messengers. At the same time let us thank God for the gift of the risen Jesus given once again to us. This Resurrected Jesus gives us his message of peace as he gave to all the disciples every time he met them. Today as we celebrate his rising from the dead he gives the same message of peace. We pray that this peace will remain in our hearts always to make us his messengers in the world of today. We pray that peace will triumph over what seems to be the madness of the secular world.

But, the celebration of Easter is a call

He was born in order to become, by His dying and rising, the One Savior of the world, our Savior! Today. And his call to each of us is to renew our commitment to live in closer union with the Risen Lord Jesus. Let us ask the Lord to deepen His life within us and to make us His witnesses of Easter joy and hope. Let us promise our Risen Savior and Lord that we will follow Him, our Light and our Life every day and invite others to come to Him by the witness of our lives — our family, our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends — everyone we meet! With Christ the Risen One, let us make all things new — with the joy and hope He gives! With Christ the Risen One, Let us be Easter People! Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!