Monday, June 22, 2015

Prayer in the Storms of Life

In the Gospel for the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B (Mark 4: 35-41), we see quite a contrast.  The violence of a storm contrasts with the inner calm of Jesus, asleep in the stern of the boat that is being swamped.  The terror of the disciples contrasts with the peace of Jesus.  As Jesus addresses their fear and cry for help, his inner peace calms the storm.

We all experience storms in our lives. Our first response is usually to try to handle them on our own. Only when we feel our helplessness do we turn to God in prayer.

Then we pray and pray and nothing happens. The desired result of our prayers doesn't come.  Last year I prayed and prayed for Fr. Will Prospero, S.J.--a personal friend and strong supporter of the Apostleship of Prayer--and he died of cancer at the age of forty-nine.  (Here is a video tribute that friends of his put together after his death.)

The response to situations like this is often, "God doesn't hear my prayers." No.  God is not hearing impaired.  Or we say, "God doesn't answer my prayers."  No. God answers every prayer, but sometimes the answer is not the one we want. Sometimes the answer is "no."

Behind these responses is the question of the disciples in the Gospel: "Teacher, do you not care...?"

Yes, God cares. Do we believe that? Jesus asked the disciples (and us): "Do you not yet have faith?"

Faith is a virtue.  I like to say that the virtues are spiritual muscles which require exercise in order to grow and remain healthy.  We can pray "Lord, give me faith," or "Lord, increase my faith," but get ready.  Faith won't come out of the blue, just as physical muscles don't.  God answers this prayer with storms and challenges that require us to exercise faith.

We don't like the stress and hard work that this exercise requires.  I once saw a cartoon that showed a jogger running past a park bench. On his T-shirt was the slogan: "No pain, no gain."  On the bench sat an overweight man with a can of beer wearing a T-shirt that said; "No pain, no pain."  We don't like the pain that goes with exercising the virtue of faith in the midst of life's storms.

Blessed Mother Teresa once said: "People say that God will never give you more than you can handle. I just wish God didn't trust me so much."

God trusts us.  God wants more for us than we can imagine.  God trusts that we can handle the storms that can lead us to exercise faith and grow in holiness.

In his Apostolic Exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel" (#275-9), Pope Francis has some challenging and consoling words about faith and the prayers and sacrifices we make:

"Christ, risen and glorified, is the wellspring of our hope and he will not deprive us of the help we need to carry out the mission which he has entrusted to us.  Christ's resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world. ... Often it seems that God does not exist: all around us we see persistent injustice, evil, indifference and cruelty.

"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. ... Let us believe the Gospel when it tells us that the kingdom of God is already present in this world and is growing, here and there, and in different ways: like the small seed which grows into a big tree.... Christ's resurrection everywhere calls forth seeds of that new world....

"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.... 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."

Sunday, June 7, 2015

A Corpus Christi Homily

At the Last Supper, Jesus faced three dilemmas and offered one solution.  The dilemmas were the result of his love.

The greatest act of love for another is to die for that person.  At the Last Supper Jesus told his apostles, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15: 13). Yet Jesus laid down his life not only for his friends but for his enemies. As St. Paul put it: "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).

Jesus wanted to prove his love for all people of all time and he wanted everyone to experience that love.  But he could only die once. How could he make that act of sacrificial love present everywhere and always?

He said: "This is my body, which will be given up for you; do this in memory of me" (Luke 22: 19).

He created a New Passover to go with the New Covenant.  This Memorial Meal makes present the very event it commemorates.  Now people of all time, and not just those who stood under the cross at Good Friday, can be present as Jesus offers himself up for their salvation.  He does not die again but he makes his life-giving death and resurrection present through the the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

The second dilemma of love is this: when you love someone you want to be always near that person.  But Jesus had to go. He said: "I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you" (John 16: 7). Jesus must leave this world in order to send the Holy Spirit.  But he wants to stay close to his followers and he even promised that he would not leave them orphans, that he would return (see John 14: 18). He promised "I am with you always, until the end of the age" (Matthew 28: 20). How can he go and also stay?

"This is my body."  He remains close to us in the Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament.

Thirdly, love desires not only to be close but to be one with the beloved. Love desires union.  How can Jesus unite himself to the apostles and then to Christians of all time?

"This is my body. Take and eat."  Jesus comes to us in a form in which we can receive him. He unites himself to us in Holy Communion where the two become one.

That is the gift which we celebrate today.

This has two very practical implications.

First, we who receive the Eucharist are one with Christ and are transformed by our union. In his homily at the closing Mass for World Youth Day 2005, Pope Benedict XVI said: "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."  Through a Holy Communion we are parts of the Body of Christ, "his own Flesh and Blood" in the world today.  This confirms Jesus' teaching in a parable about the Last Judgment in Matthew 25. Whatever we do to or for one of his least brothers or sisters, we do to or for Jesus.  Whatever we fail to do for one of his and our least brothers and sisters, we fail to do for Jesus.

Second, the sacrificial offering of Jesus replaced all the animal and grain offerings that preceded him. His was the one perfect sacrifice that took away the sins of the world and reconciled humanity with God and one another.  Now we, as members of his Body, join him in making that perfect offering as we celebrate Mass.  Then we go forth from Mass to live the offering we have made with Christ.  In the words of St. Paul, we offer our bodies "as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God" (Romans 12: 1).

We thank God for the gift of the Body and Blood of his Son Jesus. We adore Jesus present in the Eucharist. We open ourselves to the grace of the loving union in which the two become one flesh. And we return love for love by offering ourselves every day as we pray the Daily Offering.

The Daily Offering, prayed and lived, is the best response to Jesus' gift of himself to and for us.