Saturday, March 24, 2012

"I Will Draw Everyone to Myself"

I'm giving a parish mission this week at Mary Immaculate Church in Farmers Branch, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. I'm preaching at the 5 English Masses this weekend (there are also 3 Spanish Masses) and then giving mission talks on Monday and Tuesday and helping with a Reconciliation Service on Wednesday. Here's the gist of my homily this weekend.

Jesus said: "And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself." The Gospel of John states that in saying this, Jesus was "indicating the kind of death he would die." Jesus, on the cross, draws all people to himself, to his Sacred Heart. This is the greatest sign of love the world has ever known. In his first encyclical letter, "God is Love," Pope Benedict said that in a world that uses the word "love" for all sorts of things, our definition for love must begin at the pierced side of Jesus on the cross.

The Eucharist is the Sacrament of Love. At every Mass Jesus is lifted up and draws us to himself. He gives himself for us and to us. The Eucharist is the "new covenant" about which Jeremiah wrote in the first reading. It is the covenant and law of love that is not out there, exterior to the human person, but is within us and written on our hearts. It is written there because Jesus unites his Heart with ours in Holy Communion and transforms our hearts so that we are able to love as he loves.

When we look at the love of Jesus revealed through his pierced heart on the cross, we see that love is not so much a feeling as a decision, a choice. It is not so much an interior feeling but action. And it is not automatic.

Our second reading from Chapter 5 of the Letter to the Hebrews shows this. It is a strange passage that requires some reflection to better understand. First, it says that Jesus "offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears." Of course Jesus prayed to the Father throughout his life, but this description makes us immediately think of his prayer in a garden called Gethsemane. There he prayed, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me" (Luke 22: 42). Hebrews says that the prayer of Jesus was heard. Every prayer is heard. But sometimes the answer that is given is not the one for which we are praying, just as it was with Jesus. The cup of suffering and death on the cross did not pass. Jesus drank it to its bitter dregs.

Then our second reading goes on to say, "Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him." What?! It sounds as though at some point Jesus was not perfect and then became perfect through his obedience and suffering. How are we to understand this?

Think of the physical muscles of a body. A baby has perfect "baby muscles" but they need to grow and develop in order to become a child's muscles, a teen's muscles, and an adult's muscles. The virtues--like obedience or faith, trust or hope, patience or chastity, or the greatest, love--also need to grow and develop. They could be called "spiritual muscles." Just as the physical muscles of Jesus needed to grow and develop, so too his spiritual muscles. They were always there in perfect form, but they became even stronger as they developed until, in the case of his obedience, it reached its fullest perfection in the Garden of Gethsemane and the next day on the cross.

How do muscles whether physical or spiritual develop and grow? Through the hard work and discipline of exercise. Virtues don't come automatically or out of the blue. They are given to us in seed form and we need to exercise them in order for them to grow and reach perfection. Very often people tell me that they pray for patience and God does not hear nor answer their prayer. They say that they end up facing even more situations where they lose their patience. God is answering their prayer for patience; just not the way they expect. They expect the virtue of patience to come out of the blue in answer to their prayer when the truth is that God answers their prayer by giving them more and more opportunities to exercise patience so that it will grow.

A parish mission is a time to exercise. We will come away this week to reflect on the gifts we have received in the Holy Eucharist and Baptism. We will talk about ways that we can exercise the gifts that are given to us in these Sacraments. Then, as we allow the Lord to draw us to himself when he is lifted up at Mass, and as we receive his Body and Blood, including his Heart, to transform us, we will be better able to live the transformation in our daily lives.

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