Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Circumcised Heart

The sign of God's covenant with Abraham and his descendants was circumcision. God told Abraham: "my covenant shall be in your flesh as an everlasting pact" (Genesis 17: 13).  But this circumcision of the flesh did not guarantee that people would have the power to be faithful to the covenant.  So God called for a new circumcision--of the heart.


Speaking to the people, after they had failed time and again to be true to the covenant, God said: "Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and be no longer stiff-necked" (Deuteronomy 10: 16). And in what is known as the last words of Moses, we hear: "The Lord, your God, will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, that you may love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and all your soul, and so may live" (Deuteronomy 30: 6).  The prophets picked up this same promise: "For the sake of the Lord, be circumcised, remove the foreskins of your hearts..." (Jeremiah 4: 4).


The new covenant that God made with humanity when Jesus came was sealed in the flesh. The heart of Jesus was "circumcised" when it was pierced as he hung on the cross. From this open heart came the water and blood representing the sacramental life of the Church. Water (Baptism) takes away sin. Blood (Eucharist) gives a new heart. 


When we receive the Eucharist--the Body and Blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ--we receive the Sacred Heart pierced  (circumcised) for us.  This new heart is joined to our hearts, transforming them and making it possible for us to live the new covenant of love that Jesus sealed in his flesh.  With circumcised hearts and one with the Heart of Jesus, we can now love God and neighbor as Jesus did. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Mounted Serpent

It was in the form of a serpent that the evil spirit entered into the garden of innocence and tempted the first human beings.  Thus it should be no surprise that serpents came to afflict the Israelites who had complained against God and Moses (see Numbers 21: 4-9). The serpents were a consequence of turning from God. But what is surprising is that an image of this evil, the serpent, became the source of healing. God told Moses to make an image of the serpent and to fix it on a pole. Anyone who had been bitten by the serpent would find healing by looking upon the mounted serpent.


Even more surprising, Jesus uses this image of the serpent to refer to himself. He told Nicodemus that "just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3: 14-15).  How is it that Jesus uses this image of evil for himself?


St. Paul helps us understand this.  He wrote: "Christ ransomed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, 'Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree'" (Galatians 3: 13).  He also wrote: "For our sake God made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him" (2 Corinthians 5: 21).  Christ "became sin" and in that way became the source of healing and new life. He identified himself totally with sinful humanity and took upon himself the sins of the world.


He also took upon himself the consequences of sin.  Again, St. Paul: "And even when you were dead in transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he brought you to life along with him, having forgiven us all our transgressions; obliterating the bond against us, which was opposed to us, he also removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross..." (Colossians 2: 13-14).  Jesus took upon himself the judgment, the result of sin, and allowed it to be nailed into his own body on the cross.  He made reparation, repairing the damaging consequences of sin, by offering himself on the cross. 


In another place in John's gospel, Jesus refers to his being lifted up. He said: "When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM..." (8: 28).  How is it that people will realize that Jesus, when he is lifted up on the cross, mounted like the serpent, a curse and sin, is God, I AM?  Because God is love (1 John 4: 8, 16).  What proves love? What is the greatest sign of love? What proves that Jesus is Divine Love itself?


St. Paul answers: "For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly. Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us" (Romans 5: 6-8).


Christ continues to give proof of his love when he is lifted up at Mass. At every Sacrifice of the Mass he makes present his life-giving death on the cross.  Our faith is that Jesus is God and that he is present in the lifting up at Mass.  His Body and Blood, lifted up, overcome sin and death. The serpent is defeated. 



Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Sacred Heart's Sadness and Anger


One way in which we practice devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is to prayerfully enter into the movements of Jesus’ Heart as we find them in the gospels.  The gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A (John 11: 1-45), shows us that both sadness and anger moved the Heart of Jesus.

Jesus planned to raise his good friend Lazarus from the tomb.  This is why he delayed in going to Bethany rather than responding as soon as the message of Lazarus’ illness had come to him.  This is why he told his disciples, “This illness is not to end in death….” 

Yet, though he knows he is going to raise Lazarus from the dead, he cries. Verse 35 is said to be the shortest verse in the Bible: “And Jesus wept.”  Why does he weep when he knows he is going to raise Lazarus?  The Heart of Jesus, filled with compassion, shares the sorrow of Mary and Martha and the many others who were grieving over the death of Lazarus.  His Heart is moved by the sadness he sees.  His Heart shares in that sadness.

But his Heart is moved in another way as well.  Twice, in verses 33 and 38, it says that Jesus was “perturbed.”  One dictionary defines “perturbed” this way: “to be greatly disturbed in mind, disquieted.”  I have always used the word when speaking of anger.  One who is perturbed is angry. 

The Scripture scholar Fr. Raymond Brown thinks that this is what moved Jesus’ Heart here.  In his Anchor Bible commentary on this passage, he writes that there is difficulty in translating the Greek word here, but that it is possible “that Jesus was indignant or angry.”  Why?   One reason could be at the lack of faith of the disciples and other mourners, but I think there was a deeper reason. I think he was angry at death and the cause of death—sin.  It is as though Jesus is thinking to himself: “It didn’t have to be this way! You were not made for death but for life. It’s because of sin that you have this pain and sorrow.” 

It is good for us to enter into the Heart of Jesus and to share in its movements.  The compassion we find there leads us to share in human sadness and also to get angry at what causes it.  This anger should then move us to “right the wrongs” that we find in the world and especially within ourselves.  We ought to be angry, not at ourselves, but at sin.  The Lord sees us with a compassionate Heart, heals us with his mercy, and then calls us to fight sin. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Blindness--Physical and Spiritual


Fr. Larry Gillick, S.J., had an accident as a child that left him blind. In 1982 I had the opportunity to accompany him to South Korea where we directed retreats.  I served as his physical eyes and he served as my spiritual eyes. I led him around for daily walks and he walked me through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. He served as my mentor and supervisor as I helped direct people in the Exercises.

I thought of Fr. Gillick today because the Mass readings are about blindness, both physical and spiritual. 

In the First Book of Samuel 16, God sends the prophet Samuel to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the next king of Israel. Samuel judges the sons by their physical appearance and none of the ones he thinks he is sent to anoint turns out to be God’s choice. God does not judge by appearance but “looks into the heart.”  Thus the youngest (perhaps smallest)—David—is anointed and “the spirit of the Lord rushed upon” him.

We tend to judge people by their appearance—how they look and act.  God looks into the heart. I’ve often thought that if we knew just 1/8 of what a person has gone through in his or her life—the pains and sorrows, the challenges and rejections—we would be much more compassionate toward them. 

We often fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others. It’s been said, “compare and despair.”  Why?  One reason is because we compare how we feel on the inside to how they look on the outside.  They look happy and attractive; they seem to “have it all together.”  We think: “if I had what they have, I’d be happy too!”  We get jealous. Such comparisons are unfair and end up in negativity.

Or, we build ourselves up at others’ expense. Like the Pharisees in today’s Gospel (John 9: 1-41), we see others as sinners and think, “well, at least I’m not like so-and-so.” 

Sin darkens our spiritual sight. It blinds us.  Because of sin we focus on the negative in ourselves, in others, in our world.  If I were to tell people ten things about themselves, nine of them very positive and complimentary, and one of them critical, what would they go away remembering and obsessing over?  The negative.  Because of sin we tend to see the glass as half empty rather than half full and so we end up complaining rather than giving thanks.

We need to have our blindness healed.  We need better spiritual sight.  In the Eucharist Jesus gives us his Body and Blood to transform our hearts so that we might see ourselves and others as God sees us.  Because we are anointed in Baptism with sacred chrism, the Holy Spirit “rushes” upon us, giving us wisdom and insight, warmth and light. 

So how does God see us and how should we see ourselves and others?  As beloved.  Precious enough to die for.  Pope Francis put it this way in his homily on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2013:  “For God we are not numbers, we are important. Indeed we are the most important thing to him. Even if we are sinners, we are what is closest to his heart.”

Draw near to that heart, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and see yourself and others embraced by it. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Thirst of Jesus


The readings at Mass today, the Third Sunday of Lent, speak of thirst—two kinds of thirst. 

In the first reading (Exodus 17: 3-7), we hear of Israel’s thirst in the desert during their journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. And in the gospel (John 4: 5-42), Jesus, takes a rest next to a well at noon when a woman shows up.  Both are thirsty, but for more than water.

It was unusual for the Samaritan woman to show up at noon to draw water.  Why didn’t she come earlier, with the other women, at dawn before the intense heat of the day?  Probably because of shame and the abuse hurled at her by the others. She, who had had five husbands and was living with a sixth man, would have heard things like: “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you keep a man? What a disaster your life is!”  So she came at noon when no one else would be around.  But someone else was there. She encountered Jesus.

The woman had, in the words of an old country-western song, been “looking for love in all the wrong places.” She was thirsty for love, for the care and concern of another, but, for one reason or another, she couldn’t find it.  Jesus too was thirsty for love—for her love.  He knew what she had been through and he did not condemn her. Rather, little by little, he led her to the understanding that he was the messiah who had come to free her and all people from sin. He offered her true love—God’s love, the truest, deepest love the world has ever known.  He told her that this love could become a fountain of life welling up within her. 

Later in John’s gospel (19: 28), as Jesus hung on the cross, he thirsted again. He was dying and said “I thirst.” In those dying words of his he expressed not only his physical thirst but his thirst for our love. It is as though he, with arms outstretched, was saying: “I love you this much. All I want is for you to accept my love. With my love within you, you will love me in return and be saved.”

Pope Benedict XVI wrote about this thirst of Jesus in his 2007 Lenten Message:  “On the Cross, it is God himself who begs the love of his creature: He is thirsty for the love of every one of us. … The response the Lord ardently desires of us is above all that we welcome his love and allow ourselves to be drawn to him.”

The Samaritan woman welcomed the love of Jesus and was drawn to him. But she couldn’t keep the good news of the love she had found to herself. She went to the townspeople, no doubt risking their ridicule and rejection, and told them of her newfound love. They went to Jesus and invited him to stay. He spent two days with them and they too came to believe in the love of the one whom they came to know as “truly the savior of the world.”

Jesus continues to thirst. Will we, like St. Therese and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and so many others, give him to drink?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Our Transfiguration

On the Second Sunday of Lent we always have the story of Jesus' Transfiguration. It brings to mind my 2006 pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Our tour bus for over 40 pilgrims had to park at the foot of Mt. Tabor, the high hill on which tradition has it Jesus was transfigured. Then smaller vans took us up the narrow, winding road to the top.  The view was fantastic, for this high place rises from a plain and one can see, in all four directions, the beauty of the land that was promised to Abraham.  We celebrated Mass there, perhaps on the very spot where Jesus was transfigured.

But what was the Transfiguration? What happened on that high place? Imagine for a moment being with Peter, James, and John. What would you have seen? You would have seen the divine glory of God shine forth through Jesus, so powerful that it even affected the clothes he was wearing. You would have seen Moses and Elijah standing and talking with Jesus. You would have heard the voice of God the Father coming from heaven and you would have been covered by a "bright cloud," the sign of the Divine Presence.  It was a taste of heavenly glory, given to prepare you for the darkness ahead--the betrayal, arrest, suffering, and crucifixion of the one in whom you had placed all your hopes.

Was this, the Transfiguration, the greatest miracle of Jesus before his death and resurrection? Not according to St. Thomas Aquinas.  Then what was?

Was it one or all of the many healings, especially keeping in mind the ones Jesus did from a distance, like the servant of the centurion?  No.

Was it the multiplication of five loaves and two fish, enough to feed 5,000 people?  No.

Was it raising dead people, like Lazarus whose body had been in the tomb for several days or the daughter of a synagogue official named Jairus?  No, not according to St. Thomas Aquinas.

Then what about when Jesus walked on water and calmed a storm? Surely this display of his power over nature was his greatest earthly miracle?  No.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest miracle of Jesus occurred at the Last Supper.  Here's how St. Thomas Aquinas put it as quoted in a letter that Pope John Paul II wrote for the 750th anniversary of the feast of Corpus Christi on May 28, 1996: "at the Last Supper, after celebrating the Passover with his disciples and when he was about to pass from this world to his Father, Christ instituted this sacrament as the perpetual memorial of his Passion..., the greatest of all his miracles, and he left this sacrament to those whom his absence filled with grief, as an incomparable consolation."

At World Youth Day 2005, in Cologne Germany, Pope Benedict described what happened at the Last Supper this way: "What is happening? How can Jesus distribute his Body and his Blood? By making the bread into his Body and the wine into his Blood, he anticipates his death, he accepts it in his heart and he transforms it into an action of love. What on the outside is simply brutal violence, from within becomes an act of total self-giving love. This is the substantial transformation which was accomplished at the Last Supper and was destined to set in motion a series of transformations leading ultimately to the transformation of the world when God will be all in all (cf. 1 Cor. 15: 28)."

This is the miracle that takes place every time Mass is celebrated. You don't have to fly across the ocean to see a miracle or the site of a miracle. You don't have to go across town or cross country to see an unusual spiritual phenomenon. The greatest miracle of Jesus happens right here, but we are often so unaware.

There is more. Not only are bread and wine transformed. We are too.  Pope Benedict again: "This first fundamental transformation of violence into love, of death into life, brings other changes in its wake. Bread and wine become his Body and Blood. But it must not stop there, on the contrary, the process of transformation must now gather momentum. The Body and Blood of Christ are given to us so that we ourselves will be transformed in our turn. We are to become the Body of Christ, his own flesh and blood."

Have you ever thought of yourself as the "flesh and blood" of Christ? It seems blasphemous to say that. Yet Pope Benedict says this is what happens when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. The two--Christ's flesh and ours--become one and we are transformed. Transfigured, as it were. At every celebration of the Eucharist we are given a taste of heaven. Jesus gives himself to us. The divine glory of Jesus is given to us so that it might shine forth into the world through us.


The Transfiguration of Jesus happened once. Our transfiguration, the transformation that every Holy Communion effects, happens every week, every day even.  We need this transforming "Bread of Life," food for our journey.

The apostles and Jesus descended the mountain and went forth to face the darkness that was gathering. We leave Mass and are sent forth into a dark world with the glory of God within us. We leave to face our own challenges to faith, hope, and love. But we aren't alone as we do so. We are one with Christ, whose Body we have received, and one with our brothers and sisters in the Communion of Saints.  We are not alone in the dark.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Forgiveness

The daily Mass readings during Lent are special because the first reading and the Gospel are designed to complement each other. 

Today's first reading (Isaiah 55: 10-11) says that the word of God waters souls just like the rain and snow water the earth. The word of God bears fruit. In the Gospel (Matthew 6: 7-15) Jesus shares a word from God and teaches his disciples and us how to pray. The prayer he taught--the Our Father--has nourished Christians for centuries.

After teaching that prayer, Jesus goes on to show how essential forgiveness is for a good relationship with God. Not just God's forgiveness of us, but our forgiveness of others.  This word of Jesus often falls on hard hearts like rain drops on concrete. God wants to nourish us with that word and soften our hearts but we need to receive it.

One of the most striking examples of someone who received that word and allowed it to change his life is Fr. Lawrence Jenko. Fr. Jenko was a Servite priest who was kidnapped in early 1985 in Lebanon where he was the director of Catholic Relief Services.  He spent the next 18 months in captivity.

A year before his death in 1996, his book "Bound to Forgive: The Pilgrimage to Reconciliation of a Beirut Hostage" was published.  The following story of forgiveness comes from the first pages of Chapter 1:

Toward the end of my captivity one of my guards, a man named Sayeed who had at times brutalized me, sat down on my mat with me. He had recently started calling me 'Abouna,' an Arabic name meaning 'dear father.' At first I was Jenco, then Lawrence, then Abouna, indicating by the choice of names and tone of voice that a change of heart was taking place. He asked me if I remembered the first six months of my captivity. I responded 'Yes, Sayeed. I remember all the pain and suffering you caused me and my brothers.' Then he asked 'Abouna, do you forgive me?'

These quietly spoken words overwhelmed me. As I sat blindfolded, unable to see the man who had been my enemy, I understood I was called to forgive, to let go of revenge, retaliation, and vindictiveness.

And I was challenged to forgive him unconditionally. I could not forgive him on the condition that he change his behavior to conform to my wishes or values. I had no control over his response. I understood I was to say yes.

How difficult this must have been!  Yet, what follows must have been even more difficult.  Fr. Jenco continued:

I said: 'Sayeed, there were times I hated you. I was filled with anger and revenge for what you did to me and my brothers. But Jesus said on the mountain top that I was not to hate you. I was to love you. Sayeed, I need to ask God's forgiveness and yours.'

Fr. Jenco realized that he was called not only to forgive his captor but to ask for his forgiveness as well. The same seeds of hatred that led Sayeed to brutalize Fr. Jenco were in his own heart.  But the word of Jesus upon which he had meditated for so many years had softened his heart and nourished it. The word removed Fr. Jenco's own hatred and violent thoughts. He confessed his own guilt, his own need for forgiveness. 

I believe that something else gave Fr. Jenco the strength to do this. In the Eucharist, the word of God is not only heard but takes flesh. Over the years Fr. Jenco had been transformed by the One he had received in Holy Communion. His heart had been transformed to be more like the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus. 

Thus the word of God comes to us not only when the Scriptures are proclaimed at Mass or meditated upon in our prayer. The word changes bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ so that  the Word of God can take flesh and give himself to us.  With every word of Scripture and every Mass in which we participate, the Word of God--Jesus--transforms us so that we can love and forgive as he did when he prayed and died for those who crucified him.