Sunday, June 9, 2019

Pentecost Homily

Last evening and today I celebrated four Masses in South Dakota prairie towns--Faith, Red Owl, and Mud Butte.  These places are served by a Polish priest who is part of the Rapid City Diocese and who went back home to visit his family.  He has quite a trek every weekend.  He lives in Faith and on Saturdays he drives over 60 miles to Red Owl for 4 PM Mass and then on Sundays he drives 40 miles to Mud Butte for 10 AM Mass.  Here's the homily I preached:

I want to begin with a question, but you're going to have to listen closely to it.  Do you have any "thems."  You know, as in "us" and "them." 

In the late 1960's when I was in high school, I was given a little reflection book by Malcolm Boyd entitled "Are You Running With Me Jesus?"  One reflection went like this:  "The definition of charity: No Them."

Our first reading (Acts 2: 1-11), the story of Pentecost, shows how diverse "Jews and converts to Judaism" from all over heard about "the mighty acts of God" in their own language as the apostles, uneducated Galileans, preached the good new of Jesus Christ to them.  The Holy Spirit had performed a miracle that brought about unity in the midst of the diversity of many languages.  All were able to hear and understand the Gospel.  All were included.

In the second reading from chapter 12 of St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, we hear that all--"whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons"--are chosen to be part of the Body of Christ.  No one is excluded.  The Church has no "them." 

This is God's plan for humanity--a unity amidst diversity.  Humanity is made in the image and likeness of God.  God, as we will reflect upon more in next week's feast of the Most Holy Trinity, is a mystery of  One and Three.  God is Three Persons and One God.  There is diversity in the Divine Nature and unity.  Thus humanity, made in this image, is meant to be diverse but one.  We are not created to be the same or to be isolated individuals. We are made to be a communion of persons.  In God there is no "them," only "us." 

This unity amidst diversity is the work of the Holy Spirit, the bond of Love between the Father and the Son.  The Spirit unites us to God and to one another, making us one.  No "them."

In the Gospel (John 20: 19-23) Jesus said that the Father sent him. He was sent to reconcile humanity to God and with one another. 

The word "reconcile" comes from a Latin word which means "to make friends again."  Where sin separates us from God and one another, causing a break in our friendship, Jesus came to restore friendship.  Friends do not see each other as "them." 

As members of the Body of Christ we are now sent by him and empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue his work.  The apostles and those ordained after them continue this work through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  However, all the baptized are sent to bring about reconciliation.  We do that by forgiving one another, by works of mercy, and by our penance.  The idea of penitential prayers and acts is to balance out the wrong in the world with good, to repair the damage of sin. 

But what about the last line of the gospel: "whose sins you retain are retained?"  What sins are retained? 

It takes two to reconcile.  People may hurt you and you go to them to tell them that you forgive them.  But if they look at you and say, "I didn't do that; I didn't say that" or if they minimize the hurt by saying "Hey, that was nothing; get over it," then reconciliation has not taken place.  The hurt, the sin, has been retained.  You were ready to forgive but they were not ready to receive your forgiveness.

There may be instances where reconciliation doesn't happen because people do not admit their sin or excuse it.  They are not able to receive mercy.  Neither God nor we can force them to accept it without their realizing they need it and want it. 

Our responsibility is not to impose reconciliation on others.  It cannot be forced.  However, we must always  be ready to forgive, to make sure there is no obstacle in our hearts to reconciliation--no resentment, no bitterness.  In other words, we must never see others as "them."  We must pray for their conversion so that they will see their need for mercy and receive it.  God wants everyone to be reconciled--to be friends of God and one another. 

In the end, in heaven there will be no "them."  There will only be "us"--humanity reconciled in the Body of Christ. 

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Union with God and One Another

I am at St. Nicholas church in Valentine, Nebraska this weekend.  All of Nebraska celebrated last Thursday as a holyday of obligation, the feast of the Ascension.  So today we are celebrating the 7th Sunday of Easter.  Here's my homily:

Imagine: at the Last Supper Jesus thought of you and prayed for you.  That's what today's Gospel (John 17: 20-26) tells us.  It says: "Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed, saying: 'Holy Father, I pray not only for them [the apostles], but also for those who will believe in me through their word...'"
And what was Jesus' prayer for us?  "That they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.  And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me."

These are Jesus' last words to his apostles, his farewell address, before going to his death. Jesus prayed that they and we might be one with him and one with each other.

That makes sense.  If, as the first book of the Bible Genesis says, we are made in the image and likeness of God, then we are made not to be isolated individuals.  Rather, reflecting the loving communion that is the divine nature, we are made for communion.   We are created for union with God and the communion of saints.

And this communion is essential to evangelization, to spreading the good news of God's love.  Jesus said that the world will believe that Christianity is true when it sees Christians in loving union with one another, a union that is grounded in their union with God.

What makes this union possible?  First of all, the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit is the bond of love between the Father and the Son.  This is the mystery of the Holy Trinity which we will celebrate in two weeks.  Next week we will celebrate Pentecost, recalling the day when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary gathered in prayer in the upper room.  The Spirit came with great power in the form of tongues of fire.  It was the fire of love that united those who received that outpouring of the Spirit.  Those who saw the effects of the Spirit were amazed to hear the apostles preaching the good news and to understand them, even though they came from diverse countries and spoke and understood diverse languages.

The Spirit brought them together.  The people understood the preaching because the apostles spoke a universal language, the language of love.

Love usually involves feelings, but it is more than an emotion or sentiment.  It is ultimately an act of the will in which one desires the ultimate good of the other person no matter how one feels about him or her.  We see this in the First Reading (Acts 7: 55-60), the story of St. Stephen's martyrdom.

I don't know how Stephen felt about the people who stoned him to death, but I would suspect he didn't like them.  Yet, he loved them.  How do we know this?  Because he prayed for them, saying "Lord, do not hold this sin against them."  He prayed for their salvation, not their condemnation.  He prayed that they would experience God's mercy and be converted.

This was a powerful prayer for their conversion that was joined to Stephen's sacrificial suffering.  And it had a great effect on one of those present--Saul.  Stephen's prayer was a channel for God's mercy to one day reach into Saul's hear.  It led to a conversion.

Do you remember that conversion?  Saul was on the road to Damascus intending to round up Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains to be imprisoned and tried.  He encountered a blinding vision of the risen and ascended Christ on that road.  And what did Jesus say to him?  "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?"  He didn't say, "Why are you persecuting my Church?"  Nor did he say, "Why are you persecuting my followers?"  He asked "Why are you persecuting ME?"  He was confirming a teaching that he gave in a parable that we find in Matthew 25: whatever we do or do not do for or to one another, we do or do not do for or to Christ himself.  Jesus was teaching Saul that we and Jesus are one.  He is the Head and we are the Body.  We are in union with Jesus and one another just as the parts of a physical body form a one flesh union.

And that brings us to the second way that we enter into union with God and one another--through the Holy Eucharist, a mystery that we will be celebrating three weeks from today, after we have celebrated Pentecost and the feast of the Most Holy Trinity.

See how it all fits together, these three feasts?  We have the mystery of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit to whom Jesus was referring when he said in today's Gospel: "Righteous Father, ... I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them."  The Holy Spirit is, as we said, the love between the Father and the Son. The Spirit reveals to us the mystery of God, Three in One, the Holy Trinity in whose image we are made.  And in addition to the Holy Spirit bringing us into union with God and one another, there is the Holy Eucharist which brings about a one flesh union with Jesus, God-made-flesh, and communion in the Body of Christ, the Church.

Now the challenge is to live this oneness with God and God's other children.  This is what Jesus prayed for at the Last Supper.  There are so many divisions among Christians. There is so much conflict in the world.  The answer to Jesus' prayer begins here, with you, with me.  Like Stephen we are called to pray for our enemies, those who have hurt us.  We are called to let go of resentments and pray that there may be healing in our relationships.  And we are to pray for those people in other parts of the world who hate us and want to see our destruction. We pray for their conversion, that they may come to know the love of God, receive that love, and be brought into union with God and us.  We pray for their ultimate salvation..

This was so important to Jesus that in his final words to his apostles, before going to his suffering and death, he made this his prayer.  It is so important to him that from time to time he sends his own Mother to beg us to pray for the conversion of sinners.  Only when the prayer of Jesus is realized in us, in the Church, and in the world will there be peace.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

B.I.B.L.E.

In today's first reading at Mass (from the Book of Nehemiah, chapter 8) the Israelites gather to listen to Nehemiah proclaim the Word of God.  They hear God's Law, the way that God showed them to live so that they would be safe and prosper.  What was their reaction when they heard the Word proclaimed?  They break into tears.  Why?  They grieve because they realize that they had not followed God's Law and the result was disastrous. God's Law gave them directions but they ignored the directions and lost their way.

How do Nehemiah and Ezra respond?  They say, "Do not be sad, and do not weep."  They tell them to celebrate: "Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength."  Basically they are being told: "Don't look back.  Don't dwell on the past, nor on your failures.  Learn from your mistakes but don't dwell on them.  Be joyful because now you know better.  You can make a fresh start."  

Every Sunday God's Word is proclaimed in the Church.  In fact, every day we have an opportunity to hear or read God's Word.  But do we listen?  The statistics say "no."  In 2008 the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) took a survey of U.S. Catholic adults.  The good news is that when asked if they had a Bible in their home 87% answered "yes."  The bad news is that when asked how often they read that Bible in the past year 32% answered "never" and 31% answered "a few times."  Apparently their Bibles were heirlooms in which to record significant family events and then to sit on a shelf gathering dust.  

Another, informal survey found that the average Christian, including those who described themselves as "Bible-based" Christians, spent more time in one evening watching T.V. than the rest of the week reading the Bible.  In other words, if one watched 3 hours of television on any given night, 3 hours or less were spent during the entire week reading God's Word.  What does that say about what is forming the minds, the hearts, the attitudes and values of the average Christian?  

We need to hear God's Word as much as the people of Nehemiah's time did.  I have a CD that was created with music from the Great Jubilee Year 2000 World Youth Day.  It's called "One" and it includes a song written by Steven Delopoulos and John Philippidis called "Basic Instructions."  The "basic instructions" are found in the Bible which can be said to stand for "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth."  The Bible--God's Word, God's Law--is our guide book for how to live in a way that leads to the Kingdom God has prepared for humanity from the beginning.  

The Bible is not the sort of book that one can say, "I've read it several times.  I know what's in it.  I know the story and how it ends.  There's nothing new there for me."  The Bible is unlike any other book.  We do not read the Bible for information nor for entertainment.  We prayerfully read the Bible for "formation"--to have our minds and hearts formed by the "living Word" (see Hebrews 4: 12).

With today's technology there are new and convenient ways to make Scripture more a part of our lives.  I have an app on my phone that can be found at www.downloadjesus.com.  I also receive  two daily email messages that briefly reflect on the Mass readings.  One is from a group called "Presentation Ministries" ( https://www.presentationministries.com/obob/obob.asp ) and the other is from Bishop Robert Barron  ( https://dailycatholicgospel.com/sign-up-daily-gospel ).  

But the Eucharistic celebration is a special time and place where Jesus is alive, speaking to us through the Scriptures.  Then, having our hearts set ablaze by the Word present in the Scriptures, Jesus opens our eyes to His special presence in the second part of our celebration, the breaking of the bread (see Luke 24: 30-32).  The Word becomes flesh on our altars.  The bread and wine are transformed into Christ's Body and Blood.  

In this way today's Gospel (Luke 1: 1-4; 4: 14-21) is fulfilled.   Jesus proclaimed a passage from the prophet Isaiah and announced "Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing."  It's as though Jesus is saying: "Today you are not only hearing the Word of God you can see that Word in the flesh.  You can see the one about whom Isaiah was speaking. You can see this Word standing in front of you accomplishing what was described."  

At Baptism we were joined to the Body of Christ.  This was not a mere enrollment into a human organization.  A divine and organic union took place.  And when we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, His very flesh, in Holy Communion, that baptismal union is nourished and strengthened.  We are not individuals alienated from one another.  We are, in the words of the second reading (1 Corinthians 12: 12-30) parts of One Body, the Body of Christ.  We belong to one another.  We need one another.  We cannot exist apart from one another and our Head, Jesus.  We are one and a sign to the world that unity and the peace that follows from it are possible.  Only sin separates us from the Body, from Christ and one another.  

Hearing this Word that God speaks to us today and seeing this Word made flesh and joining Himself to us, we go forth to fulfill the Word as Jesus did.  We go and live the Word that is spoken, seen, and received.  We hear God say to us through Nehemiah "Do not be sad."  Do not look back.  Do not live in the past regretting and resenting.  Be joyful.  Live in the present and be God's Word in the lives of others, one day at a time.