Monday, March 28, 2016

The Hope and Joy of Easter

St. Paul wrote to the Colossians (3:1): “If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above….”  In other words, live in the light of Easter.  Live with the hope and joy of Easter.  You have been baptized and given a new life.  Live with the hope and joy that this new life in Christ brings.
Our temptation is to live in darkness and despair.  There is so much “Good Friday” in the world today.  So many tragic deaths. So much abandonment on crosses made, in Pope Francis’ words, by “the globalization of indifference.” 

In his Apostolic Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis wrote about the serious temptation to “defeatism which turns us into disillusioned pessimists, ‘sourpusses’ (#85).  People who give in to this temptation “think that nothing will change” (#275).  But because of Christ’s resurrection, we have hope. 

Pope Francis writes: “If we think that things are not going to change, we need to recall that Jesus Christ has triumphed over sin and death and is now almighty. Jesus Christ truly lives” (#275).  This means that “Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world” (#276).  Because of the resurrection, we have hope and confidence. 

But holding fast to hope requires work.  We have to strengthen the hope that Christ’s resurrection gives, to believe that it “is not an event of the past,” but a force at work in our lives and in the world.  “Faith means believing in God, believing that he truly loves us, that he is alive, that he is mysteriously capable of intervening, that he does not abandon us and that he brings good out of evil by his power and his infinite creativity” (#278). 

That is where our faith is challenged: to believe that evil is not the final word and that God can bring “good out of evil.”  Yet this is what we have just celebrated.  God took the worst evil possible—the crucifixion of the Son—and brought out of it the greatest good—our salvation from sin and death.  This is the reason for our hope and joy. 

Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York has identified four threats to joy. 

The first is self-pity which puts “me” first, at the center.  Joy comes when God is first, others are second, and I am third.  Self-pity inverts that order and leads to unhappiness.

Secondly, joy is threatened by worry which fosters a negative attitude toward the future, feeds pessimism, and again places “me” at the center.

The third threat to joy is the belief that my happiness depends on something outside of myself.  I believe that certain things or people or situations will make me happy whereas, in the words of Jesuit Fr. John Powell’s book, “Happiness is an Inside Job.”  But what about God?  Shouldn’t God be the source of my joy and isn’t God transcendent?  Yes, but through baptism God is also within.  As baptized temples of the Holy Spirit, we find God within the secret chamber of our heart.

Finally, the fourth threat to joy, according to Cardinal Dolan, is complaining which not only saps our joy but spreads negativity to others who often in turn reinforce our own negative attitude.  The antidote?  Gratitude.  Seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty and being grateful for what fills the glass. 

In our case, we are filled with the light, hope, and joy of Christ’s resurrection.  Having spent forty days of Lenten preparation for the celebration of the Easter Triduum, we now have fifty days in which to savor its hope and joy. 

But we must do more than savor the hope and joy of Easter.  We must live it in our daily lives.  We were made new through baptismal waters.  The world was made new by Christ’s resurrection.  As Pope Francis wrote in “The Joy of the Gospel”: “Christ’s resurrection everywhere calls forth seeds of that new world; even if they are cut back, they grow again, for the resurrection is already secretly woven into the fabric of this history, for Jesus did not rise in vain.  May we never remain on the sidelines of this march of living hope!” (#278).


Our lives are a journey to the Kingdom of Heaven where we will live forever.  We will live body and soul sharing in the glory of Jesus Christ, our Risen Savior.  May we not, as Pope Francis said, “remain on the sidelines,” but may we march forward with hope and joy.  

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Christ Trampled Down Death by Death

Both readings at Mass today, Tuesday of the Fifth Week in Lent, offer a paradox.  For Christians with the eyes of faith, paradoxes are not problems to be solved but mysteries to be appreciated.  Today's readings call us to appreciate God's love in a deeper way.

In the First Reading (Numbers 21: 4-9) saraph serpents bring death to the Israelites and Moses is told to "make a saraph and mount it on a pole" so that "whoever looks at it after being bitten will live." The cause of death became the source of healing. A paradox.

This anticipates what we will remember and celebrate next week.  At the Easter Vigil, in the Exultet hymn, we will hear that Adam's sin was "necessary" because it won for us such a great Redeemer. It's a "culpa felix" or "happy fault."  Paul repeats this paradox in 2 Corinthians 5: 21: "For our sake, God made him [Christ] to be sin who did not know sin...."  And, in Galatians 3: 13, he writes: "Christ ransomed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us...."  Jesus suffered and died as a criminal to bring righteousness to sinners.

Even more, he overcame death by means of death.  Throughout Easter, Eastern Christians, both Orthodox and Catholic, sing: "Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death and to those in the tomb restoring life."

In the Gospel (John 8: 21-30) we find another paradox.  Jesus declares: "When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM...."  You would think just the opposite!  How can you see the One whom Jesus refers to by the unpronounceable Divine Name--God--in a crucified criminal?  Only with the eyes of faith.

On the cross we see the greatest act of love the world has ever known.  And, since, according to the First Letter of John (4: 8 and 16), God is Love, God is revealed most clearly on the cross. When Jesus is lifted up on the cross, we are called to believe: here is God, here is Love in the flesh!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Homily for Lent, Third Sunday, Cycle C

Do you ever pray when you read the newspaper?  Or watch the evening news?  In today's Gospel (Luke 13: 1-9) we get the 1st Century equivalent of this.  News spread by word of mouth back then and "some people told Jesus about" two tragic events.  In Galilee, where Jesus was raised, the Roman governor Pilate killed some Jews as they were offering a religious sacrifice.  Their blood "mingled with the blood of their sacrifices."  And in Jerusalem, eighteen people were killed "when the tower at Siloam fell on them."  Reflecting on this, the people sharing these news stories with Jesus wondered what sins these victims must have committed to have warranted such punishment from God.  Jesus tells them that they've got it all wrong.  God doesn't punish in this way.

I grew up with an image of God that was very negative and I can pinpoint where that image was planted in my consciousness. I was about five and my extended family had gotten together to visit my grandparents.  As the adults were conversing around the large (at least to a boy) dining room table, I was chasing my cousin Ronny. My father told me, "Cut it out," and being the good boy I was, I obeyed him.  But when the adults got busy again with their conversation, I poked Ronny and he poked me and we started fooling around again.  As I chased him I slipped on the rug, fell, and hit my head on the table and started crying.  My father said to me: "See! God punished you!"  In that moment God became a policeman just waiting to catch little boys when they were misbehaving, and the jury and judge who would pass sentence on them, and the executioner--all rolled into one.

This is not the God Jesus reveals to us. Not the God Jesus teaches us about.  We are not punished for our sins but by our sins.

God's creation has built-in laws.  They give order to creation.  They're not imposed from outside nor are they arbitrary.  God's laws are part of the nature of things.  For example, physical creatures follow the law of gravity. Humans are free to rebel against that law.  Now, we're not talking about flying in an airplane which still follows the laws of physics. We're talking about someone who decides the law of gravity is too restrictive and launches him or herself off a high place in order to fly.  They wouldn't break the law which is still there.  They would break themselves.  That wasn't God punishing them, but God maintaining the order of the universe and allowing them to suffer the consequences of their foolish choice.

But humans are more than physical beings. We are made in the image and likeness of God.  We are spiritual.  And just as there are physical laws that govern us because we are physical, so there are spiritual laws that govern us as well.  They are part of nature and are for our good and the good order of the universe.  If we choose to rebel against those spiritual laws, we end up hurting our relationship with God. We end up hurting others and ourselves.  That's not God punishing us, but allowing us to experience the natural consequences of our foolish choices.

Sin hurts.  This is why Jesus, in the Gospel, warns the people to repent lest they perish.  And worse than hurting oneself physically is hurting oneself spiritually, being alienated from God and God's other children, possibly forever.

In the first reading from Exodus chapter 3, God comes to Moses as fire in a burning bush. God reveals the Divine Name. God is "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob."  God is the God of merciful faithfulness.

In a recent interview book, "The Name of God is Mercy," Pope Francis says that going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation is not like going to a dry cleaner to get some stains removed.  Sin goes deeper. Sin wounds and the Sacrament is designed to heal the deep wounds, the consequences of sin.

In the Sacrament we encounter the merciful and sacred Heart of Jesus.  Images of the Sacred Heart portray a heart on fire with love.  The Letter to the Hebrews 12: 29 says that "our God is a consuming fire."  The fire of God's love brings healing to the sinner and destroys or consumes sin.  It is a purifying fire.

We encounter the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the Eucharist and in all the Sacraments.  Not only does the fiery love of this Heart purify us.  It transforms us so that we in our turn can bring mercy into the world.  One practical way that we can do this is to pray when we read the newspaper or watch the news. Rather than getting negative and angry, we can pray and ask God to be merciful to the people and situations that we see.  Mercy is not only to be received; it's to be shared.  In sharing it we will show ourselves to be faithful and merciful children of the Father and members of the Body of Christ.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Transfiguration

On the First Sunday of Lent we see Jesus in the desert battling temptations.  On the Second Sunday of Lent we see him on the mountain basking in the glory of God.  The two Sundays are a paradigm of our life which is a series of ups and downs.

In 2006 I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with forty-six others.  We went to Mt. Tabor, traditionally viewed as the place of Jesus' Transfiguration.  Our tour bus was large and unable to go up the narrow winding road to the top of the mount.  We disembarked and took several of the vans or mini-buses that carried pilgrims to the top.  It was easy to understand how the three apostles who were with Jesus fell asleep after the long climb.  But our journey was easy and so we were wide awake for the beautiful view to the south and for the Mass we celebrated there in one of several churches.

Jesus often went to a hill or high place to pray.  There seems to be a human instinct that leads us to encounter God in the heights.  The Lakota Sioux went to mountains and high buttes for their vision quests.  It was on Mt. Horeb (traditionally identified with Mt. Sinai) that Moses encountered God in the burning bush and received the covenant commandments.  The prophet Elijah went to this same mountain where he encountered God not in fire or a mighty wind or an earthquake, but in "a tiny whispering sound" (1 Kings 19: 11-12).

Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, turn up at Jesus' Transfiguration. They speak with Jesus about "his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem" (Luke 9: 31).  Jesus had just been telling his apostles about this "exodus"--that the "Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised" (Luke 9: 22).  He followed this teaching with one about discipleship: "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9: 23).  The way to glory is not easy.

St. Peter wanted to construct tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  He would like them, and we can assume, himself and the two brothers James and John, to remain on the mountaintop. He would like to hold on to the glory and avoid the struggles that are part of the plains and valleys of life.  But Jesus could not remain there.  He had work to do--the work of our redemption.

Life is a series of ups and downs, mountaintop experiences and valleys.  We would like to remain on the mountain, but we cannot. We must live in the broken world and share others' burdens and sorrows.  We must deal with our own.  Every so often we may have a mountaintop experience, or as St. Ignatius Loyola called it, consolation.  But it will pass.  When it comes, St. Ignatius says in his Rules for Discernment of Spirits, we should savor the peace and the joy in order to strengthen ourselves for the inevitable valleys of life.  Then, when the valleys or, as he puts it, desolations, come, we will be strong. We will remember that the desolation too will pass.

Jesus' Transfiguration was a taste of glory before the battle.  The consolations God sends us serve a similar role.  They remind us of the joy of heaven that will never end.

Back to the pilgrimage: after celebrating Mass and touring the various churches and taking one last look at the plain to which we would be returning, we got on the minibuses for the trip down the mount. I suspect the drivers got a perverse pleasure out of scaring pilgrims as they raced around tight corners at breakneck speeds during the descent.  All one could do is trust them and their driving skills.

That's a final lesson of the Transfiguration: trust.  As Jesus surrendered himself into the loving hands of the Father, trusting that his suffering and death would lead to his glory, so do we followers of Jesus strive to trustingly surrender.  As St. Paul wrote: "Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body..." (Philippians 3: 20-21).  If we let him, Jesus will lead us on an exodus from this world to the mountaintop of heaven where we will share in his glory.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Homily for Third Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle C

In the first reading at Mass today, the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C (Nehemiah 8: 2-10), the scribe/priest Ezra addressed the Israelites after their return from exile.  For hours he read to them the Law, the covenant God had made with them. Their reaction?  Sadness.  Discouragement.  They realize they had not followed the covenant, the mutual love that would bring them peace and happiness. 

But Ezra tells them: “Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!”  He tells them not to look back or dwell on the past.  Look to the present moment when the people have gathered to express their desire to be faithful to the covenant.  On this present moment, build your future.  Be mindful of God’s faithfulness and have hope.

This hope was eventually fulfilled by Jesus who faithfully lived Israel’s covenant of love.  In the gospel (Luke 4: 14-21), Jesus returns to his home town of Nazareth after being baptized in the Jordan and battling Satan in the desert. Over the years he was accustomed to reading in the synagogue there. Handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus looked for the passage (61: 1-2) where the prophet spoke of his mission. 

After reading these words of hope and joy, Jesus did a shocking thing.  He applied the words to himself. He declared that they were being fulfilled by him.  He is the one of whom Isaiah wrote.  The authority with which he speaks is backed up by the deeds that he will soon perform—physical and spiritual healings that reveal the freedom of which Isaiah spoke. 

This gospel takes on greater meaning for us this year.  This is “a year acceptable to the Lord.”  This Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy is a year of favor.  The Church is called to focus, as Ezra did, on the present time in which God will shower his mercy on the world if we but let him.  Now is the time for us to experience God’s mercy in a deeper way and to share that mercy with the world through works of mercy. 

But even more, now is the time for us to witness to mercy by our joy.  More than works, joyful mercy is to be seen in who we are—people of joy in the midst of a world that appears so hopeless.  The loving covenant God made with humanity can be fulfilled because of Jesus who shared our humanity and unites himself to us in one Body, the Church.  As Jesus proclaimed a joyful message during a difficult time in human history—when Israel was occupied by the brutal Romans, when a Jewish puppet king named Herod colluded with the pagan occupiers, and when the Pharisees strove to live the Law perfectly but in a way that separated themselves from the suffering poor and sinners—so we are called to witness to joy and hope.

In his Apostolic Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis challenged us as Ezra did. He wrote: “One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into disillusioned pessimists—‘sour-pusses’” (#85).  Various commentators have said that this is probably the first papal document to contain that expression.  But it is an accurate translation of the original Spanish, “con cara de vinagre”—with a face of vinegar.  Our faces are to beam with the joy of knowing that we are forgiven and, like Jesus, are beloved sons and daughters of God the Father who loves us with an infinite love which nothing can take away.  God’s love, like his mercy, is always offered to us.  God never stops loving because God is Love.  We, however, are the ones who reject God’s love or place obstacles to it in our lives.  Realizing this we should not become saddened like the Israelites, but rather turn to God and receive mercy as the sins we bring to him and confess are removed. 

Christians are joined to Christ who gives them the power to move away from sin and toward the freedom of the children of God.  All of us, members of his Body, have an important role to play in the ongoing work of proclaiming and living the Gospel of Joy.  We may be saddened by our failures, weaknesses, and sins.  But Jesus tells us, as Ezra did, “Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!”

St. Paul, in the second reading (1 Corinthians 12: 12-30), underscores the reason for our joy.  No matter how small, weak, or insignificant we may feel, we are all part of the Body of Christ.  We all have a role to play.  Reading this passage, St. Therese of Lisieux, who enrolled in the Apostleship of Prayer when she was twelve, became discouraged.  She did not see herself, a cloistered Carmelite nun, in Paul’s list of Body parts—apostles, teachers, those who do mighty deeds or have gifts of healing, those who offer assistance or are administrators or speak in a variety of tongues.  Reading the next chapter of Paul’s letter, the great hymn to love that we will have in next week’s Sunday readings, St. Therese found consolation.

She wrote: “And the Apostle explains how all the most PERFECT gifts are nothing without LOVE. That Charity is the EXCELLENT WAY that leads most surely to God.  I finally had rest. Considering the mystical body of the Church, I had not recognized myself in any of the members described by St. Paul, or rather I desired to see myself in them all. Charity gave me the key to my vocation. … I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was BURNING WITH LOVE. I understood it was Love alone that made the Church’s members act, that if Love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the Gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood.  I understood that LOVE COMPRISED ALL VOCATIONS, THAT LOVE WAS EVERYTHING, THAT IT EMBRACED ALL TIMES AND PLACES …. IN A WORD, THAT IT WAS ETERNAL!  Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my Love …. my vocation, at last I have found it…. MY VOCATION IS LOVE!  Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is You, O my God, who have given me this place; in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love. [Emphasis in original]


St. Therese shows us that no one is insignificant nor is any moment of life meaningless.  We are filled with joy because we know that united to the Sacred Heart of Jesus burning with love, we too can be love in the heart of the Church and in the midst of the world.  This love, the love with which Jesus offered himself on the cross for the salvation of all, will enter today’s world through us.  It is the only power capable of overcoming the violence and darkness we see around us.  It is, as Therese wrote, “EVERYTHING” and “ETERNAL.”

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Wedding Feast of Cana

On February 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, we celebrate the annual World Day of the Sick.  It’s a day on which we pray in a special way for those who carry the cross of illness and for those who care for them.  Each year the Holy Father writes a message for the occasion and this year he reflected on the Wedding Feast of Cana.

He said that the “wedding feast of Cana is an image of the Church: at the center there is Jesus who in his mercy performs a sign.”  The miracle or sign reveals Jesus’ divine power and anticipates the heavenly wedding feast where union with God will be consummated.


Human beings, made in the image and likeness of God who is a Trinity of Persons, are made by Love itself and for Love. We are created for union with God and the Communion of Saints. This union and communion begin here on earth at the Eucharist where the Son of God unites himself to us.  It is a marriage in which the two, Jesus and each individual, become one flesh. Joined to Jesus, we are also united to one another in the one Body of Christ. 

Jesus made this possible when he took flesh.  Early theologians spoke of the marriage of humanity and divinity—two natures—in the one person—Jesus. The fruit of this marriage is eternal life.  Jesus made a total gift of himself on the cross and he anticipated this gift at the Last Supper when he said “This is my Body given for you. Take and eat.”  It is as though he said: “Make me one with you.  Become one with me.” 

Knowing such love, this total gift of self, the natural response is to want to give a gift in return. The only gift that can come close to Jesus’ gift to us is a total gift of ourselves. The best gift we can give to him is the precious gift of time.  We live in time.  It represents our earthly existence. When we run out of time, that’s the end of our life on earth.  

In the Daily Offering we give God the gift of time, the gift of our lives. Every moment is made a gift, even our recreation and our sleep.  We do those for our health, to take care of God’s gift of life.  We can, as St. Paul put it, “do everything for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10: 31). 

What we offer God may seem small, insignificant.  Not for God.  Jesus invited the apostles to help him and he invites us.  He wants our help no matter how small it seems because in his hands what is small becomes great.  This is a typical pattern for Jesus.  In his hands, five loaves and two fish feed thousands.  Water becomes an abundance of the finest wine. 

In his Message for the 2016 World Day of the Sick, Pope Francis reminds us that our lives are significant to Jesus and that the “toil and sufferings like the water which filled the jars at the wedding feast of Cana,” by being offered to God, can “help God to perform his miracles.” 

Here is the pertinent passage:   “He could have made the wine appear directly in the jars. But he wants to rely upon human cooperation, and so he asks the servants to fill them with water. How wonderful and pleasing to God it is to be servants of others! This more than anything else makes us like Jesus, who ‘did not come to be served but to serve’ (Mark 10: 45). These unnamed people in the Gospel teach us a great deal. Not only do they obey, but they obey generously: they fill the jars to the brim.  … On this World Day of the Sick let us ask Jesus in his mercy, through the intercession of Mary, his Mother and ours, to grant to all of us this same readiness to be serve those in need, and, in particular, our infirm brothers and sisters. At times this service can be tiring and burdensome, yet we are certain that the Lord will surely turn our human efforts into something divine. We too can be hands, arms and hearts which help God to perform his miracles, so often hidden. We too, whether healthy or sick, can offer up our toil and sufferings like the water which filled the jars at the wedding feast of Cana and was turned into the finest wine. … If we can learn to obey the words of Mary, who says: ‘Do whatever he tells you’, Jesus will always change the water of our lives into precious wine.” [Emphasis added]


Friday, January 1, 2016

A New Year's Homily

There is an expression, "What's in a name?"  The answer is, "Plenty!"  A name represents the person.  If someone makes fun of your name, you feel bad because you feel that you are being disrespected. 

The gospel (Luke 2: 16-21) ends with Jesus being circumcised eight days after his birth and being given his name.  It's the Greek version of a common Jewish name, Joshua, which means "God saves."  
Our second reading (Galatians 4: 4-7), says that we are adopted by God.  An adopted child receives a new name that indicates a new relationship.  As children of God we can now call God by a new name as well--"Father" or "Abba."  

In our first reading (Numbers 6: 22-27) God tells Moses to invoke his name upon the Israelites.  Moses does so in a strange way.  He declares: "The Lord bless you and keep you! The Lord let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!"  Notice, he doesn't actually use a name; rather he invokes God's action.  God is true to his name. His activity flows from the person this name represents--Love.  For "God is Love," as John wrote in his First Letter.

Jesus lives up to his name, "God saves." He lived, suffered, died, and rose, and in that way saved the world.  Mary lived up to her name, the title under which we honor her today--"Mother of God."  She opened her heart to receive God's Word who then took flesh in her and was born.  

We are called to live up to the name which represents our deepest identity--child of God and Christian.  How?  It begins as it did for Mary who, as the gospel tells us, "kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart."  We open our hearts to the mysteries of God's will and Word and in that way we live as God's Christian children.  The world desperately needs us to do so.

Last night many people around the world celebrated.  In some cases people celebrated as though there would be "no tomorrow" in which to deal with the effects of their overdoing it. In many cases people celebrated, happy that the past year with its tragedies was over, and hopeful that the new year would be different.

Christians, as popes from St. John Paul II to Pope Francis have said, are called to be people of hope.  We are not to give in to cynicism or pessimism or despair. Our hope is active, not passive.  One can passively hope that there will be good weather for travel, but there is nothing one can do to realize that hope.  Students who hope they do well on an exam are called to active hope--to work and study in a way that their hopes will be realized.  I can hope that this new year will be better, that justice and peace will grow in the world, and this hope is not an idle or passive hope.  It's quite active.  As the song goes, "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me."

Today is the 49th annual World Day of Peace. For the occasion, Pope Francis has written a message entitled, "Overcome Indifference and Win Peace."  He began the message with these words: "God is not indifferent!  God cares about humanity!  God does not abandon us!  [emphasis in the original]  What we have just celebrated shows this.  God so loved humanity that the Son of God took flesh, shared in our humanity with its sufferings and death, and overcame them by his resurrection.  Now we are called to cooperate with God who is not indifferent to the world but cares deeply about each individual person. 


With hearts like Mary, open to the action of the Holy Spirit, we overcome indifference, cynical apathy, and the hopelessness that paralyzes us.  Then we can live up to our name and truly be who we have become through baptism--children of God, Christians.