Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving

There are three short verses in Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians that are good not only for Thanksgiving Day but for all days.  They are verses 16 to 18 of Chapter 5 and go like this:

“Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” 

In other words, God wants us to always be grateful and to rejoice.  Easier said than done! What about when we are feeling down and things are not going well in our lives and in the lives of our loved ones? Can we give thanks then? Isn’t that na├»ve or dishonest?

Gratitude, like forgiveness and like love, is not so much a feeling but an act of the will. Yes, it’s easier to be grateful when we are feeling good, but St. Paul says we should give thanks in all circumstances.

This takes faith—faith that, in St. Paul’s words, “all things work for good for those who love God” (Romans 8: 28).  We can be grateful even in the midst of difficulties by making an act of faith that God is using those difficulties to work some good in the world. After all, God used one of the most horrible things that could ever happen—the crucifixion of Jesus—to bring about the greatest good—our salvation.

The natural human tendency is directed toward negativity. We tend to see the glasses in our lives as half-empty rather than half-full and this gives us dark rather than rose-colored glasses with which we view the world.  One could say that it is the will of God for us, as St. Paul wrote, to be grateful because such an attitude of thanksgiving, no matter how we are feeling, is good for us—for our spiritual, emotional, and physical health.

We don’t develop an “attitude of gratitude” overnight nor is it a matter of “once acquired, always there.”  A grateful heart needs to be exercised.  One way that we can develop a grateful heart is to make thanksgiving a part of our end-of-the-day prayer. 

In the middle of the “Inner Life” call-in spiritual direction radio show yesterday, Ann from Wisconsin sent in an email about how helpful an evening examination that includes thanksgiving has been for her. She started doing this after reading Jesuit Fr. Chris Collins’ book “Three Moments of the Day.” 

She wrote: “I read Fr. Chris Collins' book "3 Momentsof the Day" a few months ago and it's changed my life. During the Examen at the end of the day, I start my prayer with all the things I'm grateful for, that happened during the day. And then I go through the list of things I beg God for, but it's been put into perspective now, because I've just told God what I'm grateful for. And I think I've started to realize what's important... For example: Rather than beg God to improve my high school son's grades and make him work harder, I start by thanking God for my son's health and the fact that he's enjoying swim team. Then the grades don't take on as much importance.”

You can listen to the entire show on the “Inner Life”archives.

Oh, and thank you for reading this and passing it on!

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.” 

Amen.


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.