Sunday, January 24, 2016

Homily for Third Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle C

In the first reading at Mass today, the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C (Nehemiah 8: 2-10), the scribe/priest Ezra addressed the Israelites after their return from exile.  For hours he read to them the Law, the covenant God had made with them. Their reaction?  Sadness.  Discouragement.  They realize they had not followed the covenant, the mutual love that would bring them peace and happiness. 

But Ezra tells them: “Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!”  He tells them not to look back or dwell on the past.  Look to the present moment when the people have gathered to express their desire to be faithful to the covenant.  On this present moment, build your future.  Be mindful of God’s faithfulness and have hope.

This hope was eventually fulfilled by Jesus who faithfully lived Israel’s covenant of love.  In the gospel (Luke 4: 14-21), Jesus returns to his home town of Nazareth after being baptized in the Jordan and battling Satan in the desert. Over the years he was accustomed to reading in the synagogue there. Handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus looked for the passage (61: 1-2) where the prophet spoke of his mission. 

After reading these words of hope and joy, Jesus did a shocking thing.  He applied the words to himself. He declared that they were being fulfilled by him.  He is the one of whom Isaiah wrote.  The authority with which he speaks is backed up by the deeds that he will soon perform—physical and spiritual healings that reveal the freedom of which Isaiah spoke. 

This gospel takes on greater meaning for us this year.  This is “a year acceptable to the Lord.”  This Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy is a year of favor.  The Church is called to focus, as Ezra did, on the present time in which God will shower his mercy on the world if we but let him.  Now is the time for us to experience God’s mercy in a deeper way and to share that mercy with the world through works of mercy. 

But even more, now is the time for us to witness to mercy by our joy.  More than works, joyful mercy is to be seen in who we are—people of joy in the midst of a world that appears so hopeless.  The loving covenant God made with humanity can be fulfilled because of Jesus who shared our humanity and unites himself to us in one Body, the Church.  As Jesus proclaimed a joyful message during a difficult time in human history—when Israel was occupied by the brutal Romans, when a Jewish puppet king named Herod colluded with the pagan occupiers, and when the Pharisees strove to live the Law perfectly but in a way that separated themselves from the suffering poor and sinners—so we are called to witness to joy and hope.

In his Apostolic Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis challenged us as Ezra did. He wrote: “One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into disillusioned pessimists—‘sour-pusses’” (#85).  Various commentators have said that this is probably the first papal document to contain that expression.  But it is an accurate translation of the original Spanish, “con cara de vinagre”—with a face of vinegar.  Our faces are to beam with the joy of knowing that we are forgiven and, like Jesus, are beloved sons and daughters of God the Father who loves us with an infinite love which nothing can take away.  God’s love, like his mercy, is always offered to us.  God never stops loving because God is Love.  We, however, are the ones who reject God’s love or place obstacles to it in our lives.  Realizing this we should not become saddened like the Israelites, but rather turn to God and receive mercy as the sins we bring to him and confess are removed. 

Christians are joined to Christ who gives them the power to move away from sin and toward the freedom of the children of God.  All of us, members of his Body, have an important role to play in the ongoing work of proclaiming and living the Gospel of Joy.  We may be saddened by our failures, weaknesses, and sins.  But Jesus tells us, as Ezra did, “Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!”

St. Paul, in the second reading (1 Corinthians 12: 12-30), underscores the reason for our joy.  No matter how small, weak, or insignificant we may feel, we are all part of the Body of Christ.  We all have a role to play.  Reading this passage, St. Therese of Lisieux, who enrolled in the Apostleship of Prayer when she was twelve, became discouraged.  She did not see herself, a cloistered Carmelite nun, in Paul’s list of Body parts—apostles, teachers, those who do mighty deeds or have gifts of healing, those who offer assistance or are administrators or speak in a variety of tongues.  Reading the next chapter of Paul’s letter, the great hymn to love that we will have in next week’s Sunday readings, St. Therese found consolation.

She wrote: “And the Apostle explains how all the most PERFECT gifts are nothing without LOVE. That Charity is the EXCELLENT WAY that leads most surely to God.  I finally had rest. Considering the mystical body of the Church, I had not recognized myself in any of the members described by St. Paul, or rather I desired to see myself in them all. Charity gave me the key to my vocation. … I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was BURNING WITH LOVE. I understood it was Love alone that made the Church’s members act, that if Love ever became extinct, apostles would not preach the Gospel and martyrs would not shed their blood.  I understood that LOVE COMPRISED ALL VOCATIONS, THAT LOVE WAS EVERYTHING, THAT IT EMBRACED ALL TIMES AND PLACES …. IN A WORD, THAT IT WAS ETERNAL!  Then, in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: O Jesus, my Love …. my vocation, at last I have found it…. MY VOCATION IS LOVE!  Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is You, O my God, who have given me this place; in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love. [Emphasis in original]

St. Therese shows us that no one is insignificant nor is any moment of life meaningless.  We are filled with joy because we know that united to the Sacred Heart of Jesus burning with love, we too can be love in the heart of the Church and in the midst of the world.  This love, the love with which Jesus offered himself on the cross for the salvation of all, will enter today’s world through us.  It is the only power capable of overcoming the violence and darkness we see around us.  It is, as Therese wrote, “EVERYTHING” and “ETERNAL.”

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Wedding Feast of Cana

On February 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, we celebrate the annual World Day of the Sick.  It’s a day on which we pray in a special way for those who carry the cross of illness and for those who care for them.  Each year the Holy Father writes a message for the occasion and this year he reflected on the Wedding Feast of Cana.

He said that the “wedding feast of Cana is an image of the Church: at the center there is Jesus who in his mercy performs a sign.”  The miracle or sign reveals Jesus’ divine power and anticipates the heavenly wedding feast where union with God will be consummated.

Human beings, made in the image and likeness of God who is a Trinity of Persons, are made by Love itself and for Love. We are created for union with God and the Communion of Saints. This union and communion begin here on earth at the Eucharist where the Son of God unites himself to us.  It is a marriage in which the two, Jesus and each individual, become one flesh. Joined to Jesus, we are also united to one another in the one Body of Christ. 

Jesus made this possible when he took flesh.  Early theologians spoke of the marriage of humanity and divinity—two natures—in the one person—Jesus. The fruit of this marriage is eternal life.  Jesus made a total gift of himself on the cross and he anticipated this gift at the Last Supper when he said “This is my Body given for you. Take and eat.”  It is as though he said: “Make me one with you.  Become one with me.” 

Knowing such love, this total gift of self, the natural response is to want to give a gift in return. The only gift that can come close to Jesus’ gift to us is a total gift of ourselves. The best gift we can give to him is the precious gift of time.  We live in time.  It represents our earthly existence. When we run out of time, that’s the end of our life on earth.  

In the Daily Offering we give God the gift of time, the gift of our lives. Every moment is made a gift, even our recreation and our sleep.  We do those for our health, to take care of God’s gift of life.  We can, as St. Paul put it, “do everything for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10: 31). 

What we offer God may seem small, insignificant.  Not for God.  Jesus invited the apostles to help him and he invites us.  He wants our help no matter how small it seems because in his hands what is small becomes great.  This is a typical pattern for Jesus.  In his hands, five loaves and two fish feed thousands.  Water becomes an abundance of the finest wine. 

In his Message for the 2016 World Day of the Sick, Pope Francis reminds us that our lives are significant to Jesus and that the “toil and sufferings like the water which filled the jars at the wedding feast of Cana,” by being offered to God, can “help God to perform his miracles.” 

Here is the pertinent passage:   “He could have made the wine appear directly in the jars. But he wants to rely upon human cooperation, and so he asks the servants to fill them with water. How wonderful and pleasing to God it is to be servants of others! This more than anything else makes us like Jesus, who ‘did not come to be served but to serve’ (Mark 10: 45). These unnamed people in the Gospel teach us a great deal. Not only do they obey, but they obey generously: they fill the jars to the brim.  … On this World Day of the Sick let us ask Jesus in his mercy, through the intercession of Mary, his Mother and ours, to grant to all of us this same readiness to be serve those in need, and, in particular, our infirm brothers and sisters. At times this service can be tiring and burdensome, yet we are certain that the Lord will surely turn our human efforts into something divine. We too can be hands, arms and hearts which help God to perform his miracles, so often hidden. We too, whether healthy or sick, can offer up our toil and sufferings like the water which filled the jars at the wedding feast of Cana and was turned into the finest wine. … If we can learn to obey the words of Mary, who says: ‘Do whatever he tells you’, Jesus will always change the water of our lives into precious wine.” [Emphasis added]

Friday, January 1, 2016

A New Year's Homily

There is an expression, "What's in a name?"  The answer is, "Plenty!"  A name represents the person.  If someone makes fun of your name, you feel bad because you feel that you are being disrespected. 

The gospel (Luke 2: 16-21) ends with Jesus being circumcised eight days after his birth and being given his name.  It's the Greek version of a common Jewish name, Joshua, which means "God saves."  
Our second reading (Galatians 4: 4-7), says that we are adopted by God.  An adopted child receives a new name that indicates a new relationship.  As children of God we can now call God by a new name as well--"Father" or "Abba."  

In our first reading (Numbers 6: 22-27) God tells Moses to invoke his name upon the Israelites.  Moses does so in a strange way.  He declares: "The Lord bless you and keep you! The Lord let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!"  Notice, he doesn't actually use a name; rather he invokes God's action.  God is true to his name. His activity flows from the person this name represents--Love.  For "God is Love," as John wrote in his First Letter.

Jesus lives up to his name, "God saves." He lived, suffered, died, and rose, and in that way saved the world.  Mary lived up to her name, the title under which we honor her today--"Mother of God."  She opened her heart to receive God's Word who then took flesh in her and was born.  

We are called to live up to the name which represents our deepest identity--child of God and Christian.  How?  It begins as it did for Mary who, as the gospel tells us, "kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart."  We open our hearts to the mysteries of God's will and Word and in that way we live as God's Christian children.  The world desperately needs us to do so.

Last night many people around the world celebrated.  In some cases people celebrated as though there would be "no tomorrow" in which to deal with the effects of their overdoing it. In many cases people celebrated, happy that the past year with its tragedies was over, and hopeful that the new year would be different.

Christians, as popes from St. John Paul II to Pope Francis have said, are called to be people of hope.  We are not to give in to cynicism or pessimism or despair. Our hope is active, not passive.  One can passively hope that there will be good weather for travel, but there is nothing one can do to realize that hope.  Students who hope they do well on an exam are called to active hope--to work and study in a way that their hopes will be realized.  I can hope that this new year will be better, that justice and peace will grow in the world, and this hope is not an idle or passive hope.  It's quite active.  As the song goes, "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me."

Today is the 49th annual World Day of Peace. For the occasion, Pope Francis has written a message entitled, "Overcome Indifference and Win Peace."  He began the message with these words: "God is not indifferent!  God cares about humanity!  God does not abandon us!  [emphasis in the original]  What we have just celebrated shows this.  God so loved humanity that the Son of God took flesh, shared in our humanity with its sufferings and death, and overcame them by his resurrection.  Now we are called to cooperate with God who is not indifferent to the world but cares deeply about each individual person. 

With hearts like Mary, open to the action of the Holy Spirit, we overcome indifference, cynical apathy, and the hopelessness that paralyzes us.  Then we can live up to our name and truly be who we have become through baptism--children of God, Christians.

A Christmas Homily

In front of stores, leading up to Christmas, we see people next to red kettles and ringing bells. In West Bend, WI recently there was a popular miniature horse doing the same.  The money which the Salvation Army raised in this way provides a Christmas celebration for many who cannot afford one.  Thousands receive a special meal at the Wisconsin Center in downtown Milwaukee and thousands who cannot leave home receive a meal delivered to them.  It's a beautiful tradition, but it doesn't compare to what God did.

Quoting from 2 Corinthians 8: 9, Pope Francis said: "He became poor, so that by his poverty, you might become rich."  The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity set aside his power and glory. He emptied himself and became poor.  The Pope said: "God's becoming human is a great mystery."  The reason behind it, he said, is one word--"Love."  It's a love that identifies totally with poor humanity.  He continued: "God did not let our salvation drop down from heaven, like someone who gives alms from their abundance."  God became poor.

In other words, the Son of God left his place not to become a bell-ringer asking for help, nor to become a servant, bringing meals to the hungry.  Rather, he became the one in need--in need of shelter when every door was closed to him, in need of safety when a wicked king wanted to kill him, and his family had to flee, becoming refugees and finding a home in Africa, in Egypt. He became the one in need of humanity's love.

This is what inspired St. Francis of Assisi to become "the Poor One."  It's what inspires all who understand the lengths to which God went to prove his love.

The Prologue of John's Gospel (1: 1-18), which is the Gospel used for Mass on Christmas Day, employs a chiastic structure.  Themes in the first verses are repeated in the second half of the passage.  This technique is designed to draw attention to the central verse or idea.  We often think this climactic verse is verse 14--"The Word became flesh"-- but it isn't.  The center of the chiastic structure of the Prologue is found in verses 12 and 13: "But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man's decision but of God."  

We are the focus here.  We are the reason for Christmas.  You and I are the focus of God's attention and love.  God took flesh, became one of us, and shared in the human condition, so that we could become children of God.  God stooped to our level and shared our poverty so that we could rise to God's level and share in the richness of divinity.  As the Collect Prayer at Christmas Day Mass goes: "O God, who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and still more wonderfully restored it, grant, we pray, that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity."  

This is only possible through grace. Verse 16 is: "From his fullness we have all received, grace in place of grace...."  The grace of God's covenant with the Chosen People is now superseded by the grace of a new covenant meant for all people.  Emptying himself to become one with humanity, the Divine Son has united himself with every human person.  The Second Vatican Council document "Gaudium et Spes" #22 puts it this way:  "For, by his incarnation, he, the son of God, has in a certain way united himself with each man."  

And so we, the baptized who have been born of God and are truly his children, now try to live and love as Jesus did.  Inspired by his total self-giving love, we strive to empty ourselves of self-interest and to put our attention where God put it--our God's other children, our brothers and sisters.  

We do this when we give them the greatest gift--time.  Without time, we have nothing else.  When we run out of time, we come to the end of our lives on earth.  Time is God's gift to us and we show our gratitude by giving time to God and to our neighbors.  When we pray, we share God's loving concern for friends, relatives, and all people, including our enemies.  In our Daily Offering we pray for their ultimate well-being as we offer ourselves with Jesus who continues to offer himself to the Father in the Eucharistic celebration.   Though our offering may seem poor, it is made rich because it is joined to the perfect offering of Jesus.