Sunday, November 23, 2014

Jesus Christ the King of Hearts

Jesus Christ is King, but he reigns not with force or violence or human power. He does not force people to do his will, to be good, to follow his Law. The power with which he reigns and rules is divine power. And since God is love, he reigns with the power of love.

His throne is the floor, where he kneels to wash the feet of his disciples, teaching them that, while the kings of this world “lord it over” their subjects, it must not be like that for his followers.  The greatest must be the servant. The first must be the last.

His throne is the cross, where he shows a power greater than all worldly power.  It’s the power of love, a love unto death, a love that will overcome death and give life. To his pierced heart on the cross he will draw all people to himself. He will attract them to himself rather than forcing himself upon them.

The power of this love overcomes hatred with mercy as Jesus prays for those killing him and asks the Father to forgive them. The power of this love overcomes every enemy, including death.

Each of us will die, but that won’t be the end of us. We are made for more. We will enter eternal life where we will be judged. The final judgment depicted in Matthew 25: 31-46 is not something imposed on us from outside, but is the natural conclusion or outcome of our lives.

St. Catherine of Siena once said, “All the way to heaven is heaven.” That being so, all the way to eternal alienation from God and the saints begins right here as well.

The striking thing about the judgment scene as described by Jesus is that people do not recognize him in the poor and suffering. Those who act compassionately do so not to gain a reward, or because they were told to do so and are afraid of punishment. Their actions come naturally to them. They appear to be instinctively charitable. Perhaps, when they see someone suffering, they imagine what it would be like to be in their circumstances, and they respond. They see others with the eyes of their hearts and are moved by their suffering.

Those who do not recognize Jesus in the suffering see something else. They see in the other a drain on their time and energy and resources. They see an annoyance, a frustration, a threat, an enemy.
Jesus tells us to see others with an instinctive charity, to see others with hearts that are moved with pity for their suffering. We are to see others with a heart like the Sacred Heart of Jesus which sees them as precious to the Father and which so desires their well-being that it is willing to die for them.
Our challenge is to see all people this way.

They include the homeless person begging with a sign where we are stopped in traffic. They include immigrants and prisoners. And yes, they include politicians on both sides of the aisle. How do we view the people we see on the television news or read about in the papers? Do we see them as persons precious to Jesus because he shed his Precious Blood for them?  Or do we mentally dispose of them as garbage.

If we ignore them or reject them we will find ourselves living as “goats” in the kingdom of darkness, a darkness that begins here and now, in our hearts and all around us.

One way that we dismiss and dispose of people is gossip. This is a particular concern of Pope Francis.

In his General Audience of September 25, 2013, Pope Francis said: “Let each one ask him or herself today, ‘do I increase harmony in my family, in my parish, in my community or am I a gossip? Am I a cause of division or embarrassment?’ Gossip does harm. Gossip wounds. Before Christians open their mouths to gossip, they should bite their tongue! To bite one’s tongue: this does us good because the tongue swells and can no longer speak, cannot gossip. Am I humble enough to patiently stitch up, through sacrifice, the open wounds in communion?”

Good questions which challenge us to live right now in the light of heaven with its charity and peace. Doing this, we enthrone Jesus as King of our hearts.

Lastly, in speaking about this Gospel in his General Audience of November 27, 2013, Pope Francis said that if we have this instinctive charity we will have no fear. We will be able to face death without fear. The way to follow Jesus into the heavenly Kingdom prepared for each of us is charity. He said:

“A sure path comes by caring for the bodily and spiritual wounds of our neighbor. Solidarity in sharing sorrow and infusing hope is a condition for receiving as an inheritance that Kingdom which has been prepared for us. The one who practices mercy does not fear death. And why does he not fear it?  Because he looks death in the face in the wounds of his brothers and sisters, and he overcomes it with the love of Jesus Christ. If we will open the door of our lives and hearts to our brothers and sisters, then even our own death will become a door that introduces us to heaven, to the blessed homeland, toward which we are directed, longing to dwell forever with God our Father, with Jesus, with Our Lady and with the Saints.” 


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Divine Struggle to be Human

St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 2: 5-11 contains an early Church hymn about the attitude of Jesus. Paul wanted the people to whom he wrote to have this attitude. It is to be ours as well.  This attitude—vision, way of proceeding, value—is not the attitude of the world. It is not our human inclination.  Our tendency is to want independence, power, and control, in short, to be gods. 

This was the original temptation according to the third chapter of Genesis. Our ancestral parents wondered whether God could really be trusted, whether it wouldn’t be better to be independent and in control, to have the power to determine for themselves good and bad, right and wrong. They chose, in the words of the song made popular by Frank Sinatra, to do it “my way” and not God’s way.

Jesus, on the contrary, shows us God’s way, a way that is very different.  It is the way of surrender, of emptying, of humility, and obedience—all of which looks crazy in the eyes of the world. Jesus emptied himself, became a vulnerable human capable of suffering and dying.

Humility is truth.  Humility means accepting the truth that I am not God, that I am “humus”—of the earth, dust, as we are reminded every Ash Wednesday.  Therefore, in order to be happy and at peace, I must accept the truth rather than deny it or rebel against it. I must accept my nature as a vulnerable creature made of dust who is not ultimately in control.  I will only be happy and fulfilled in so far as I accept the facts and allow God to be God of my life.  Peace and joy will not be found in doing things “my way” but only in doing things “God’s way.”  That’s obedience, an unpopular concept and word today. But it’s the way of Jesus.

What worked for Jesus will work for us. This means embracing my humanity and living in accord with nature, my human nature. Then, like Jesus, I will be raised to a glory beyond what our ancestral parents grasped at.

Theologians and Doctors of the early Church taught that God became human so that humanity could become divine. This truth is quietly repeated at every Mass when a few drops of water are poured into the chalice of wine at the Offertory: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

Some years ago I heard of an author who was writing a book with a very provocative title. I don’t know if he ever finished or if it was ever published.  The title was “The Divine Struggle to be Human.”  I’ve always thought of this title in light of the emptying described in Philippians 2 and of our own struggle. We tend to turn the words of the title around and to see life as “The Human Struggle to be Divine.”  We, like our ancestral parents, grasp at power, control, independence, and equality with God. Jesus shows us that the true struggle is to embrace our humanity as he himself did. In doing so, we will be fulfilled. We will come to the union with God and the communion with all God’s children for which we were created. 

And it begins right here on earth, at the Eucharist where we come with empty hands and receive the gift of divinity—the very Body and Blood of the one who humbled himself to become human and who continues to humble himself, giving himself to us under the humble appearance of bread and wine.  We need not grasp. We need only to open our hands and hearts, empty them of everything, and receive. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Total Love

In today’s Gospel (Matthew 22:34-40) a Pharisee, who was also “a scholar of the law,” asked Jesus a question that teachers and rabbis were often asked—“which commandment in the law is the greatest?”  With 613 laws given by Moses, it would be natural to want to prioritize them. 

Jesus responded by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 which commands that God be loved with all one’s heart, soul, and mind.  This was such an important law that to this day the Jewish people write it on a piece of paper and place it in a small receptacle that is attached to the doorpost and is touched upon entering and leaving one’s house.  This is a concrete way of declaring one’s intention to live by that law inside and outside of one’s home.

Recall last Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 22: 15-21). Jesus was confronted by Pharisees and asked whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, the pagan emperor who used those taxes to oppress the Jewish people.  Jesus responded by taking a coin and asking whose image was on it. After being told it was the image of the emperor, Jesus said: “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”  What belongs to God? We do. Every human person is made in the image and likeness of God, is stamped with God’s image, and therefore belongs to God.  St. John wrote that God is love. Made in the image of love, we are made by love and for love.

Love does not ask “What’s the minimum requirement?” A marriage in which one spouse asks the other “What’s the least I need to do to keep you happy?” won’t last very long. Love asks “What more can I do to show you my love? What more can I do to prove my love for you?” The love that the greatest commandment requires is a total love.

But if our love of God is to be total, how can we fulfill the second commandment that Jesus quote—Leviticus 19:18 with its command to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Aren’t these two commandments in conflict?

No, they are actually one commandment. When you love someone you share the interests and desires of the one you love. You love what he or she loves. To love God means to love what God loves. And what does God love? You. Me. All humanity. All God’s children.  Loving God totally means loving our neighbor.

Jesus once said that the greatest love was to lay down one’s life for another. Jesus is the proof of God’s love for us. Jesus shared our life and laid down his life on the cross to prove God’s love for us. 

The world’s view of love is actually the opposite of love. The world tends to say that love is a feeling. I love whatever makes me feel good, whatever gives me pleasure. This is the opposite of love which is not about getting but giving.  In his encyclical God is Love Pope Benedict said that our definition for love must begin at the pierced side of Jesus, that opening to a heart that showed the world the deepest and truest love ever known.  True love is total. Ultimately it involves sacrifice.

Have you ever heard of Tom Burnett? He was on United Flight 93 which crashed into a field in Shanksville, PA on September 11, 2001.  In college he had stopped going to church and went searching for God. In time he returned. He worked for a medical technology firm in California and was close enough to home that he would have lunch there. According to his wife Deena, in 1997 he stopped coming home for lunch. Deena thought that Tom, who was accustomed to working 70 hours a week, was simply spending his lunch hour putting in more time at work. Six months before his death, he revealed to her that he was going to the 12:10 Mass at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton church.  In an interview, Deena said: “He told me that he felt God was telling him he was going to do something. Something big. But he didn’t understand what it was.”  He figured that if he went to Mass, God’s will for him would become clear.  Deena went on: “He knew that what he was going to do would impact a lot of people. And he knew one other thing: it had something to do with the White House.”

Imagine Tom Burnett, an ordinary guy. He has no desire to go into politics, much less aspire to be president.  Yet he has this sense that God is calling him to something big and it somehow involves the White House. You can hear him thinking, “What does my life have to do with the White House?”

On September 11, 2001, thousands of feet above the earth, Tom Burnett knew what his life had to do with the White House. He and the others on that plane knew where it was headed. They knew they had to do something, even if it meant sacrificing their lives to prevent a greater tragedy from happening.

Where did Tom get the understanding and courage to do what he did? The Eucharist. There he heard the Word that guided him through life. There he received the Body and Blood of Christ that transformed him into someone who could love God and his neighbor with a total, self-sacrificing love. 

What Tom and the others did was heroic. We may think, “That’s not me. I’m not a hero.” But each of us, in his or her own way, is called to heroic love. It may be parents sacrificing themselves for the good of their children. It may be a spouse dealing with the unemployment and depression of the other. It may be children trying to care for a parent with Alzheimer’s.  Each of us in one way or another is called to love sacrificially. The power to do so comes from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass where Jesus makes present his life-giving death and resurrection, where he proves once again how loveable each of us is.  

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Greatest Commandment

St. Anthony Mary Claret was a Spaniard who was ordained in 1835. He tried to join the Carthusian
order but was rejected because of poor health. He then entered the Jesuit novitiate but had to leave when his health broke down again.  While these doors closed, God opened another.  He recovered his health sufficiently to become a missionary and the Archbishop of Cuba.  In time he was called back to the royal court of Spain to be the spiritual director for Queen Isabella II. Regarding this apostolate he wrote: “Living at court and being constantly in the palace is a continuous martyrdom for me.  Every day at prayer I have to make acts of resignation to God’s will.  Day and night and always I have to offer up the sacrifice of staying in Madrid.”
He wrote a book entitled The Golden Key to Heaven in which he reflected upon the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits. The following excerpt from a section entitled “Love for Neighbor” is good preparation for this Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 22: 34-40) in which Jesus teaches about the greatest commandment.

Composition of Place: Imagine you see Jesus Christ in the company of His Apostles and disciples and saying to them: “Love one another as I have loved you… By this shall all know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (John 13: 34, 35). “As long as you did it to one of these…brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25: 40). …

You should know that God is Love itself; God is Charity.  This virtue is the greatest of virtues.  It is greater than faith and hope.  It is like the sun among the stars, like gold among the metals.  It gives life to all the virtues.  Without it no act has value for reaching Heaven—no, not even the most heroic works. …If one truly loves God, that is proof that there is love for neighbor, and the love one has for his neighbor discloses the love one has for God.  He who says he loves God and does not love his neighbor, does not tell the truth, because it is impossible to love one whom we do not see, who is God, if we do not love one whom we can see, namely, our neighbor. …

Charity is an all-extensive virtue which embraces everyone; fellow-countrymen and foreigner, friends and enemies.  It extends to everyone, embraces all, and does good to all.  Therefore people who limit their love to those of their own area or those of their own nation, to those of their own sentiments, or to their friends or relatives, and are not careful to love the rest—such people do not have true charity.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Anniversary of St. Therese's Enrollment

On October 15, 1885 St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face enrolled in the Apostleship of Prayer.  My good friend and supporter, Maureen O'Riordan, who is an expert on St. Therese, her parents Louis and Zellie, and her sister Leonie who entered the Visitation Order, has written about St. Therese's relationship to the Apostleship of Prayer.  You can find her article at her website Saint Therese of Lisieux: A Gateway

I'm convinced that St. Therese's "Little Way" grew out of her familiarity with the offering spirituality of the Apostleship of Prayer. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Not Fair, but Generously Merciful

Today is the last night of a parish mission that I am leading at St. Justin Martyr Church in the St. Louis area. The following is a summary of my homily from last Sunday, the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A.

When I was growing up we played "Hide and Seek."  Everyone is familiar with how that goes. If you are "it" you have to close your eyes while the others all run and hide. Then you seek them and tag them before they can reach "goal" which we pronounced "gool."  If you put your hands over your eyes but then spread your fingers to see where people went to hide you might hear back "No fair peeking." 

Children have an innate sense of fairness. If a teacher plays favorites or treats the girls better than the boys they will complain that the teacher isn't being fair. And vice versa.  Children don't learn fairness, though they often have to be reminded. A victim of unfairness knows immediately that something isn't right.  This sense of fairness seems to be part of one's conscience--an innate sense of right and wrong.

That being said, most of us hear today's Gospel (Matthew 20: 1-16a) with the parable of the workers who labor for various numbers of hours in a vineyard yet get the same pay and we react, "That's not fair!"  That's especially not fair if we consider that perhaps the reason why the workers who were hired at five weren't there at the crack of dawn because they were sleeping in.  Should such laziness be rewarded?

Remember: the parables of Jesus were designed to shock people--his listeners then and all of us now--into thought and action.

What was Jesus trying to teach us with this parable? What did he want us to think and to know?

Our first reading (Isaiah 55: 6-9) gives us a clue. Through the prophet, God, "who is generous in forgiving," tells us "my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways." 

The parable Jesus told was a description of "the kingdom of heaven."  Every human being is created for heaven--for union with God and the communion of saints. But from the beginning we have rejected God's desire and plan.  Yet God persisted.  As the landowner in the parable is "generous" so is God.  To save us from our sins and the alienation and destruction they cause, the Son of God took flesh, suffered, and died.  He took upon himself the penalty of our sins.  Then he rose from the dead and shared the reward of his obedient love with disobedient humanity.

We did not earn it.  He did not deserve it.  This was totally unfair, but it was totally merciful.

This is our faith. It's what we celebrate every time we gather for the Eucharist.

But remember, parables are designed to not only shock us into thought but also into action.  What is the action Jesus hoped to achieve with this story?

That we would be as generous and merciful as our Landowner God is.  That we would desire and then pray and work for the salvation of all.  That we would want everyone in heaven as much as God does.

That's difficult. We all have people that we don't like.  We have enemies and the thought of being with them for eternity in heaven sounds more like hell!

It is difficult and perhaps impossible to be as merciful as God is merciful. Yet we are called to be such and the power to be merciful is a divine power that is given to us in the Eucharist.  There we receive the Heart of Jesus when we receive his Body and Blood.  There our hearts are transformed to be more like the generously merciful Heart of our Savior.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Triumph of Our Crosses

On September 14 we celebrated the Exaltation or Triumph of the Holy Cross.  I gave the following homily to a group at the Sacred Heart Retreat House in Alhambra, CA.

We are celebrating a great mystery today. It's the mystery of how God saved the world from sin and death.

In the first reading (Numbers 21: 4b-9) we heard of a paradox: how a serpent, the source of death, was lifted up and became a source of healing.

This prefigured Jesus who took upon himself sin and death, was lifted up on the cross, and became the source of ultimate healing.  The cross--an instrument of death--became the instrument of life. The sign of failure and utter defeat became the sign of victory.

In the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches there is a beautiful hymn that is sung over and over again at Easter: "Christ trampled down death by death."

Who would have thought it?  Not Satan who was behind the crucifixion and who thought he had won but was defeated.

Now it's our turn.  Jesus told us to pick up our crosses and to follow him.  We are to pick up the daily hardships, sufferings, and frustrations--all those things that call for sacrifice--and unite them to the cross of Jesus. By following him in this way we follow him to victory.

The Bishops at the end of the Second Vatican Council had a series of messages for various groups of people including the poor, the sick, and the suffering. To them they said:

All of you who feel heavily the weight of the cross, you who are poor and abandoned, you who weep, you who are persecuted for justice, you who are ignored, you the unknown victims of suffering, take courage. You are the preferred children of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of hope, happiness and life. You are the brothers of the suffering Christ, and with Him, if you wish, you are saving the world.

This is the Christian science of suffering, the only one which gives peace. Know that you are not alone, separated, abandoned or useless. You have been called by Christ and are His living and transparent image. In His name, the council salutes you lovingly, thanks you, assures you of the friendship and assistance of the Church, and blesses you.

Of course Jesus is the one Savior of the world. He won salvation through his death and resurrection. But not everyone knows of this victory nor has accepted it. Now each one of us plays a role in the ongoing work of salvation.

Christ won the victory. It may not seem like it, but victory is assured. Evil will not win in the end, just as it did not win when Jesus was crucified.  Have hope! You too will triumph with Christ if you join your crosses to his.

Our human tendency is to want to see tangible results, to know that our prayers and sacrifices--all the sufferings we offer up--are making a difference.  Pope Francis addressed this in his Apostolic Exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel" (#278-9) and he offered a word of hope:

Faith also 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. It means believing that he marches triumphantly in history with those who “are called and chosen and faithful” (Rev 17:14). ...

Because we do not always see these seeds growing, we need an interior certainty, a conviction that God is able to act in every situation, even amid apparent setbacks.... It involves knowing with certitude that all those who entrust themselves to God in love will bear good fruit (cf. Jn 15:5). This fruitfulness is often invisible, elusive and unquantifiable. We can know quite well that our lives will be fruitful, without claiming to know how, or where, or when. We may be sure that none of our acts of love will be lost, nor any of our acts of sincere concern for others. No single act of love for God will be lost, no generous effort is meaningless, no painful endurance is wasted. All of these encircle our world like a vital force. Sometimes it seems that our work is fruitless, but mission is not like a business transaction or investment, or even a humanitarian activity. It is not a show where we count how many people come as a result of our publicity; it is something much deeper, which escapes all measurement. It may be that the Lord uses our sacrifices to shower blessings in another part of the world which we will never visit. The Holy Spirit works as he wills, when he wills and where he wills; we entrust ourselves without pretending to see striking results. We know only that our commitment is necessary. Let us learn to rest in the tenderness of the arms of the Father....

The theme of our retreat this weekend has been the question of Jesus, "Who do you say that I am?" Our answer today is, "You are the winner!"  You are the one who defeated sin and death with a cross. You are the one who now invites each of us to be a winner.