This is a series of homilies for special feasts that occasionally replace a Sunday in Ordinary Time.
Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God
A Blessing for the New Year
January 1, 2006
In some parts of our country and many places throughout the world there is a custom which takes place on January 1st. In those localities children are expected to return home and receive a blessing from their parents. It is a lovely custom, mothers and fathers placing their hands on their children’s head whether their children are 5 years, 15 years or 50 years old. This custom is an invitation to you and me to begin this New Year with a blessing.
This certainly seems to be the mind of the church because on this first day of the New Year our first reading is a blessing, the famous blessing of Aaron from the book of Numbers. This is an ancient Jewish blessing. We can trace it back some 800 years before Christ’s birth. The blessing is simple and strong: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.” The blessing is filled with powerful imagery: shining one’s face on someone is a way of expressing delight on the person who is beheld. This blessing tells us that God delights in us and in our presence. Lifting up one’s countenance to another person is a way of saying that the gaze creates a bond. This prayer tells us that there is a bond between us and God that cannot be broken. This blessing of Aaron is a beautiful blessing, and we should make it our own.
In order to do this, I would like to clarify what a blessing is and what it is not. I think many of us have a mechanical and perhaps a magical notion of a blessing. When we bless a person, a house, an automobile, a religious medal, we do not believe we are changing that person, place or thing—as if before the words were spoken that thing was unblessed. Nor do we believe that a blessing prayer changes God—as if before the words were spoken God was unwilling to be gracious or give us peace. We do not believe that our blessing prayers change God or the person, places or things we bless. What we believe blessings do is give thanks to God for the goodness that is already present in the person, place or thing. Blessings celebrate what our world is and who we are.
And who are we? Today’s second reading makes it clear. Paul says, “You are no longer a slave, but a child and if a child, also an heir through God. Paul says we are children of God. We are those who are to inherit eternal life. Now, it was not our blessing prayers that made us so. God made us so. We are already blessed because God created us and saved us and made us God’s own. Every time we bless one another we celebrate who we are and we remind one another we are truly children of God.
So this is why it is a good idea to begin 2006 with a blessing. To begin this year by reminding our self who we are, that we have been blessed with life, with salvation and a future. We need to remember that we are the people who believe that God will be gracious to us, that God will give us peace. We are children of God. How important it is for us to claim our status and our dignity as we enter this New Year. If we look forward to the next 12 months with fear and pessimism, we must ask ourselves whether such negative feelings result from our failure to claim who God has made us to be.
Have we made mistakes? Of course we have. Have we sinned? Yes we have. But those mistakes and sins are not who we are. Have others hurt us or rejected us? Perhaps. But that hurt and rejection does not define our status. Are there losses in our life, people who have been taken from us, opportunities we have missed? Very likely. But none of those things negate who God has made us to be. So if we can claim who we are, who God has made us to be, if we can go forward believing in our goodness and God’s presence with us, 2006 can be a very good year.
So let us begin this New Year with a blessing. Let me suggest to parents that they consider blessing their children as the year begins. It can be done very simply, placing your hands on children’s head, saying a prayer in your own words or using the blessing of Aaron from the first reading. Perhaps it could be done before dinner as your family gathers today. But take that moment so that your children know that you give thanks to God for them and that they have a dignity and a status as children of God.
And since there may be some of here whose parents are not be close at hand, I would like to end this homily today with a blessing in which we can all share. So I ask you please to stand. Please remain standing after the blessing in silence until the liturgy continues. As I pray this blessing I ask that you to open your hearts to your true status as Children of God, that you allow yourselves to see the delight that God takes in your presence, and that you bring that dignity into the New Year.
Let us bow our heads and pray for God’s blessing.
“May God bless you and keep you.
May the Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”
Dealing with Tragedy
January 1, 2012
It might come as a surprise to you that in this short and tranquil gospel which we just heard, Mary shows us how to deal with tragedy in our lives. The relevant passage is only one sentence, but it is a sentence in which every word counts. It reads, “And Mary treasured all of these things, reflecting upon them in her heart.”
Now what are the things that Mary treasured? They are the events that surround the birth of Christ. But what is peculiar about this line is it says that Mary treasured all of these things. This is perplexing. If the line said that Mary treasured some of these things, it would be easy to understand. Some of the things surrounding the birth of Christ were wonderful indeed. It would make sense to treasure the angels’ song, the visit of the shepherds, the healthy baby boy that Mary brought into this world.
But the text does not say that Mary treasured some of these things, but that she treasured all of these things. This is confusing, because some of the things surrounding the birth of Christ were quite horrible. Remember that Joseph was ready to divorce Mary when he discovered that she was pregnant. In time the two of them moved beyond that hurtful judgment, but it certainly left scars on the relationship. Exactly what part of that near disaster do we imagine Mary was treasuring? We cannot forget the forced and difficult journey to Bethlehem in the last few days of a pregnancy and the profound disappointment that Mary must have felt as she had to place her beautiful baby boy in a filthy manger. What was there about these hardships that Mary was holding close to her heart? Nor was it good news that wicked King Herod was trying to kill the child. His plans would eventually force the Holy Family to flee to Egypt. Was this something Mary would want to remember?
What part of this evil and violence was Mary treasuring? It is helpful to know that the Greek word here that we translate as “treasure” actually means “to hold onto” or, by extension, “to accept.” If we understand the word in this way, the text is telling us that Mary is accepting all of these tragic aspects of Jesus’ birth. Why is she accepting them? Because she understands that not to accept them would leave her life dominated by anger, denial, and depression. Mary did not choose to live that way. She did not choose to live in anger with Joseph over his failure to trust her, with depression over the impoverished and pathetic circumstances in which she needed to give birth, or denial that King Herod was truly trying to kill her son.
Mary accepted all of these tragic aspects of Jesus’ birth. She held them. She treasured them, because they were the way the birth came about. By her example, she tells us that when we need to deal with tragic aspects of our life, we must accept them as well. “Yes, I have cancer.” “Yes, I am divorced.” “Yes, I have been hurt deeply by someone I trusted.” Such acts of acceptance do not mean that the tragic aspects of our lives are somehow good and beautiful. Our tragedies remain tragedies. But they must be claimed as our tragedies, because it is only by accepting them that we can move forward and continue to live.
But Mary does more than show us the importance of accepting our tragedies. The second part of the text reads: “reflecting upon them in her heart.” Again the Greek is helpful. The word here translated as “reflecting” is a wonderful Greek word which literally means “to throw together.” So the scripture is telling us that Mary first accepts the tragedies she has experienced and then “throws them together” with the rest of her life.
Mary shows us then a pattern of “accepting” and “throwing together.” And what is important in this pattern is when our tragedies are thrown together with the rest of our lives, it allows the good things to win. “Yes, I am divorced, but I have friends who have stood by me throughout the entire process.” “Yes, I have been deeply hurt, but I have never been more creative in my job.” “Yes, I do have cancer, but now I see more clearly the beauty of life and am so much more free to express my love to others.”
Bad things happen to us all. When they do, the only way we can move forward, the only way that we can continue to live, is to accept those tragic things as a part of our story. And once we accept them, we can throw them together with all the good things that are still ours. This is how Mary dealt with the birth of Jesus. This is how we can, with God’s grace, deal with the tragedies of our lives so that we can continue as healthy and joyful people.
The Conversion of Paul
The Year of Paul
January 25, 2009
Acts 22:3-16; Mark: 16:15-18
Pope Benedict has proclaimed this year the year of Paul. This year we celebrate the 2000 anniversary of Paul’s birth. Paul was one of the two great apostles of the early church; the other one was St. Peter. Peter was one of the 12 apostles and a companion of Jesus during his earthly ministry. But this was not the case with Paul. Paul never met Jesus during Jesus’ earthly life. But he did receive a vision of the risen Christ while he was on the road to Damascus, the story we heard just proclaimed from the book of Acts. That vision of Christ changed Paul’s life. It was Paul’s conversion. Today we celebrate the conversion of St. Paul. Normally this feast is not celebrated on the weekend, but because of the special year the Pope has made an exception.
So tonight we celebrate the conversion of St. Paul and it seems to me that two questions are appropriate: what is Paul converting from and how does Paul’s conversion speak to us?
The first question – What is Paul converting from? If you ask the average person on the street, they would say that Paul converted from Judaism to Christianity. Many people would answer that way, but they would be wrong. Paul did in fact come to believe in Christ, but he never ceased being a Jew. At the time of Paul there was no such thing as Christianity separated from Judaism. Being a Christian in the time of Paul was being a certain kind of Jew. It was only after Paul’s death that Christianity and Judaism emerged as two separate religions.
So Paul remained a Jew his entire life. He is a witness to the heritage that Christians have from Judaism and the common faith in God that Jews and Christians still share to this day. Paul did not convert from Judaism. He converted from persecuting the followers of Jesus. Paul was firmly convinced that Jesus was not the Christ and that those who proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah were perverting Judaism. Paul not only objected to the Christian movement but he actually acted to arrest and to punish those who were following Christ. In fact it was on his way to Damascus to arrest more people that Jesus appeared to him on the road and asked, “Paul why are you persecuting me?” In that question Paul came to see that he was wrong and that Jesus was the Messiah. He also understood that God was calling him to become a Christian Jew.
So that’s the conversion of Paul—a conversion from being an unbeliever to being a believer; a conversion from being a persecutor to being a disciple. It is in that very conversion that we can find the relevance of Paul’s life to our life. Because one of the clearest things of the life of Paul is that he was willing to change. He was willing to accept a whole new understanding of who Christ was and what God was calling him to. Paul was firmly convinced that Christianity needed to be stamped out and that the followers of Christ needed to be arrested. Yet when Christ appeared to him, Paul understood that he was wrong. He changed what he believed.
Paul’s example asks us to examine what we believe. It reminds us that even though we believe things deeply, we must always be open to change. Just because we believe things deeply does not necessarily mean that we are right. We hold a lot of opinions: opinions about people, opinions about trends in our society, opinions about government, opinions about the economy, and opinions about many factors in our world. We believe some of these things very deeply. The example of Paul asks us are we open to accept new data? Are we willing to look at our convictions again? Are we willing to think again and perhaps ask whether we should change? We might have already formed negative opinions about people. We may be sure about people in our family: an uncle, an in-law, perhaps even a son or daughter. We may be sure about people at work: our employer or a co-worker. We may have already formed negative assessments of trends in our society, about the value of the internet, or the state of the economy. We might have already convinced ourselves that this person will never change, that this situation will never improve, that this problem can never be solved
Paul asks us whether we are so confident that we do not need to think again. Paul did think again. He responded to the new call of Christ, and his life reminds us that change is sometimes necessary and even profound change can lead to deeper life.
Now don’t get me wrong, I think that many of the things we believe are true and we should hold onto them with all of our strength. But only God knows all things perfectly. Since we are not God, there is always room to grow. If Paul had not changed, he would not have become an apostle and the church would be very different. On this feast of the conversion of Paul, then, we celebrate the need and the possibility of ongoing conversion in our lives. Let us follow Paul’s example, holding deeply to what we believe but always open to God’s call to change. Let us listen to that voice which says, “You are going in the wrong direction – turn around and follow me.”
The Presentation of the Lord
The Light of Christ—the Light in Us
February 2, 2002
As people of the 21st century, it is easy for us to take for granted the importance of light. Since Thomas Edison invented the electric light bulb, we have had control over light. When night falls, or the days of winter grow shorter, we do not alter our plans, we simply flick a switch and our work, our recreation, our lives go on as usual.
This control of light is something new in human history. Before the discovery of fire, our earliest ancestors were totally dependent upon the sun and moon for light. When the sun set, life stopped. They slept and waited, often in fear, until a new day began. Even after the discovery of fire and the use of it in torches and lanterns and candles, the quality of light was still limited. Normal life could not continue until the sun rose again.
Our ancestors who knew the pressing reality of darkness could not but appreciated light. They understood that light brought with it two great gifts: the gift of knowledge and the gift of assurance. Without light we cannot see, but with light, we can recognize the world around us. We can know what our environment is. We can identify the people that we love, the realities which populate our world. Light brings us this knowledge, and with it comes assurance—assurance that we can see what is before us, that we can recognize the possibilities in our circumstances, that our action can make a difference.
Light brings with it knowledge and assurance, and our ancestors knew that immediately. But we, who take light for granted, do not recognize it as easily. This is why, when Simeon says today in the gospel that Jesus is the light to the nations, the light to the world, we must imagine what our ancestors heard in those words, so that we can truly understand their meaning.
When Simeon says that Jesus is the light, it is not some poetic embellishment to increase his stature. It is a statement that Jesus is necessary for life, that Jesus is the direct means for our knowledge of who God is for us and how God will be present to us. Jesus is essential for us to have that knowledge, and from that gift flows assurance—the assurance of God’s presence in our life, God’s reality in our midst.
Understanding that light brings knowledge and assurance is as important today as it ever was, because darkness continues in our world. The darkness of tragedy continues, as we have seen this weekend in the shuttle disaster. The darkness of fear remains as we anticipate the possible coming of war. The darkness of loss is present if we miss someone that we love and must deal with the end of a relationship. The darkness of pain is real, a pain resulting from misunderstanding, from alienation, or from mental or physical sickness. All of this darkness is still a part of our lives. Therefore, the proclamation that Christ is the light is needed to remind us who God is for us so that we might have the assurance that we will not face the darkness alone.
Christ then is our light, but that light is meant to be reflected. Simeon in the gospel today says that Jesus is the light. But in Matthew’s gospel Jesus tells us that we are the light, we are the Light of the world. By that proclamation we are told that the knowledge and assurance which we have received from Jesus is the very light we should pass on to others. Our actions and our commitment to one another are meant to reflect the knowledge of who God is and how God loves us. We are to pass on the assurance, the comfort and the security that comes from God’s presence in our lives.
Knowledge and assurance—two gifts of light. The more that we can appreciate these dimensions of light, the more clearly we can see who Christ is for us and who we are called to be for one another.
Today is the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. Because this gospel in which Simeon proclaims Jesus as the light has always been read on this day, our ancestors chose this day to celebrate the reality of light. They chose to celebrate light in the way that light was most available to them, in the candles that they used to light their world. Today is also called Candlemas Day. It is the day on which the Church blesses candles and honors Christ as our light. Therefore, candles should be for us more than a mere decoration in our sanctuaries or homes. They should stand as a reminder of the essential quality of Christ’s light which brings to us our knowledge of God and the assurance that flows from it.
In the Christopher prayer there’s a line, “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness”. That is good advice for us on this feast day. Let us claim Christ as our light. Then let His light shine through us so that the knowledge of God and the assurance of God’s love might brighten our darkened world.
Faith Is More than Looking
February 2, 2014
Today is the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. This feast is always celebrated on February 2nd, but it has been years since it has fallen on a Sunday. At the time of Jesus, it was Jewish custom that every male child would be presented in the Temple forty days after that child’s birth. Joseph and Mary were pious Jews, and so we have no doubt that they brought Jesus to the Temple to be presented before the Lord. The early church wanted to celebrate this event, but there was one problem. The scriptures never give us a date of Jesus’ birth. It is, therefore, impossible to calculate what forty days after that date should be. For centuries, different early church communities experimented with different dates on which to celebrate Jesus’ birth. It was not until the 4th century that Christians settled on December 25th. Well, February 2nd is forty days after that, and this is why we celebrate the feast of the Presentation of the Lord today.
Of course, much more important than the date of Christ’s presentation is the meaning of that event for our own lives. Here we are particularly blessed, because today’s gospel from Luke is filled with meaning. Let me draw your attention to one beautiful detail. Luke tells us that there was a righteous man, named Simeon, living in Jerusalem and that the Holy Spirit had promised him that he would not die before he saw the Messiah. Coming into the Temple, Simeon sees Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to be presented before the Lord. He takes the child in his arms and gives praise to God in the famous words, “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.” Simeon knows that his life is now complete, because with his own eyes he has seen God’s Messiah. Then the prophetess, Anna, steps forward, and in a similar way announces to the people the significance of this child. Now the Temple of Jerusalem was a busy place. We can be sure that many people would have noticed this young Jewish couple, Mary and Joseph, bringing their child to be presented before the Lord. Hundreds of people looked at Jesus, but only Simeon and Anna understood his significance. These two characters from the gospel, then, remind us of the essential difference between looking and seeing, between observing and understanding. Simeon and Anna call us to move beyond the surface of life and to discover the meaning and the opportunities that lie deep within it.
We can for years, live daily in our families and never notice the acts of care and kindness that are provided by our spouse or by our parent. We can overlook how one of our children or a brother or sister is always trying to be the peacemaker or the helper. And because we do not really see these actions of care, service, and peacemaking and the love that lies behind them, we are not able to affirm that love and celebrate it. Our families suffer as a consequence. We can cooperate regularly with people at work, joining with them on effective projects. We can spend hours texting our friends, talking to them after class, or going out with them on the weekends. But although we regularly look at these co-workers and friends, we can fail to recognize a cry for help. We can fail to see how they are waiting to tell us something, asking us for our time and assistance. And because we fail to see that need, we miss the opportunity of being the agents of Christ’s healing presence.
Simeon and Anna were able to recognize God’s presence in the infant Christ. They invite us to recognize God’s presence in our lives. They ask us to slow down, to look deeper, to recognize all the opportunities that lie around us. There are people in our lives loving us who we should not take for granted. There are people needing us who we should not ignore. We are surrounded by opportunities to give thanks and to serve. But in order to discover them, we must do more than look. We must be willing to see.
Amen to What We Are
April 2, 2015
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Here we are—again. Week after week you and I gather around this altar-table to do what Jesus asks us to do in today’s second reading: to share a meal in memory of him. Over the years, we have gathered together on many different occasions and for many different reasons. We have gathered for weddings and funerals, for baptisms and anniversaries. We have gathered to give thanks for our family and for the freedom that we experience in this country. We have gathered to ask God for a job or to ask God to protect a son or a daughter who is struggling. We have gathered to find hope as we struggle with depression or to find courage as we face death. On all these occasions and for all these reasons we have gathered together. And we have done this because we believe that Jesus is here. We believe that when we gather together the risen, living body of Christ is present among us. As Paul also says in today’s second reading, “On the night before he died, Jesus took bread and said, ‘This is my body.’” We believe in the gift that he has given us. We believe that when we gather together the bread and wine that we place on the altar is changed into the living, risen body of Christ. That is our mystery. But it is not the only mystery.
St Augustine reminds us that in the same letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells his readers that they are the body of Christ. And so, Augustine says to his assembly, “If you are the body of Christ, then it is your mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you receive! When you say “Amen”, you say “Amen” to what you are. Your response is a personal signature, an affirmation of faith. When you hear “The Body of Christ”, you say “Amen”. So be then members of his body, so that your “Amen” may ring true!”
Augustine reminds us that the living presence of Christ is with us, not only as bread, but as us. We place ourselves on the altar and we ask to be changed: to be changed more fully into Christ’s body, to be people who are more grateful for what we have received, more courageous in facing evil, more forgiving toward our enemies, more generous in loving, more zealous in working for justice. We come together to do this in memory of him so that we might have the power to wash one another’s feet and to build God’s kingdom.
Today we remember what Jesus did on the night before he died. As you pray the Eucharistic prayer, understand the Amen that you sing. As you come forward to receive communion, ponder the Amen that you offer. Let us become more fully members of Christ’s body—so that our Amen may ring true.
Jesus’ Last Meal
March 24, 2016
Imagine with me if you will, what was in the mind of Jesus at the Last Supper. It did not take divine knowledge to recognize that suffering and death were close at hand. In a few hours Jesus would be in the garden, and there he would pray to his father that the cup of his suffering would pass him by. But already at supper, Jesus could guess that the cup would not pass him by. His crucifixion was a reality he could not avoid. So it makes sense for us to picture Jesus at the Last Supper as keenly aware that suffering and death were moving towards him, and that there was nothing he could do to stop them.
This attitude on the part of Jesus provides for us an example, a model for our own lives when we have to face evil we cannot avoid. The evil might be failure, rejection, sickness, or the fear of death. Now, of course, whenever we can we should try to avoid rejection and failure. We should strive for healing in the presence of sickness. We should attempt to postpone death. But times will come in our life when evil stands before us face to face, and there is no place where we can flee. What do we do then?
Jesus tells us that we are to surround ourselves with love. Today’s gospel is clear on this. Setting the scene of the Last Supper it tells us, “Jesus always loved those who were his own in this world and now he loved them to the end.” Clearly recognizing that he could not avoid suffering and death, Jesus chose to surround himself with the people who loved him, his disciples. He chose to share with them on the night before he died a meal. Now the Jesus’ friends were not perfect. They included Judas who betrayed him and Peter who denied him. But they were Jesus’ friends, and the love that he could offer them and the love that they could offer him provided comfort and strength in the face of evil. We as Christians cannot always protect ourselves from evil, but we can always celebrate love. The Christian way is not so much a way of escape as it is a way of presence: the presence of the people who love us and the presence of God who is love.
That is why Jesus gave us this meal. That is why Jesus calls us regularly to gather together and affirm with one another the love that surrounds us. That is why we believe that when we break this bread and share this cup, Jesus is really present among us. Evil is real and we cannot always avoid it. But when we gather together as we do tonight in Jesus’ name, love is here. And love is stronger than death.
The Birth of John the Baptist
Bringing Others to Jesus
June 24, 2007
Luke 1:57-66, 80
Today we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist. This feast occurs every year on June 24th but it only occasionally falls on a Sunday as it does this year. But this is a good thing, because it provides us with an opportunity to reflect upon the figure of John the Baptist. And the witness of John the Baptist reveals one of the fundamental truths of life.
The role of john the Baptist in the scriptures is very clear. John is not about himself. He is the one who points to Jesus. His words are the words that we hear at every mass before communion, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John is the one who shows us the way to the Savior. John is the herald, but Jesus is the message. John is the voice; Jesus is the Word. John prepares the path; Jesus is the Way.
The witness of John the Baptist is one which all of us should hear. It tells us that the most important thing for us is showing others the way to life. If we can somehow point the way for others to see the depth of life’s mystery and the depth of God’s love, then we can truly say that our life was successful. Now this is an important lesson, because all too often you and I imagine that our lives are about us. We spend our energy and time trying to deal with our issues, our problems, our hopes and dreams. We spend hours worrying, “Do I have enough money?” “Will I remain in good health?” “Do I have the admiration and respect of my peers?” We imagine that our life will be full only if we were more attractive, only if we have more friends and influence, only if we are able to live in another place or to have another job. But all this attention upon ourselves, ultimately does not help us. It frustrates us.
Now don’t get me wrong. We do need to plan. We need to be responsible about our needs and our future. But centering upon ourselves does not bring happiness. Being self-absorbed leads only to loneliness and despair. This is why we truly need the witness of John the Baptist who tells us that the way to happiness is to bring others to life. The way in which we can fulfill our deepest desires is to lead others to Christ.
Parents know this. When they can look upon their children and see values and generosity which they helped place there, they have a satisfaction that no one can take away. Spouses and close friends know this. When they can look in one another’s eyes and see a love there that they made possible, they have a joy that cannot be measured. When we take good and try to hold onto it, that good will not grow, that good will not bless us. But when we find ways to lead others to goodness, that good multiplies and gladdens our heart. The things that we hold onto for ourselves die with us. The love that we give away lasts forever.
So in a world where we are told over and over again that the way to be happy is to accumulate things for ourselves, we need the witness of John the Baptist who tells us that the way to happiness is to bring others to life. Do you want to be rich? Then give what you have to someone else. Do you want to really live? Then lead someone else to a fuller life. Do you want to be happy? Then give your love away. Life is not about you. It is about bringing others to a fuller sense of who they are and the world around us. Follow the example of John the Baptist. Lead others to life. Lead others to Christ, and you will find a joy that will last forever.
An Unexpected Name
June 24, 2010
Luke 1:57-66, 80
If we are to understand today’s gospel, we have to begin by appreciating why Zechariah can’t speak. Today we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist, and Zechariah is John the Baptist’s father. Earlier in the Gospel of Luke, the angel Gabriel comes to Zechariah and announces to him that his wife, Elizabeth, is going to bear a son. But Zechariah doubts the angel’s announcement. In response, Gabriel strikes him mute, unable to speak. This is why, in today’s gospel, Zechariah must ask for a writing tablet in order to communicate with his relatives.
Now the important question is, why did Zechariah doubt the angel’s announcement? The most obvious answer is its very improbability. Zechariah and Elizabeth wanted children their whole lives but Elizabeth had always been barren and now she was beyond the age of childbearing. So, it would be easy to image to why Zechariah doubted the angel when Gabriel announced that, despite her condition and age, Elizabeth was going to become a mother.
But there was a second reason why Zechariah might have doubted Gabriel’s message. It is associated with the name. When Gabriel announced that Zechariah would have a son, the angel also told him that the child’s name would be John. Now names were very important in the ancient world. A name was a way of identifying the very identity of a person. This explains the common practice of giving the firstborn child the name of its father. Sharing the same name was a way of saying that this child would be like the father and would live a life carrying out the profession of the father and providing continuity for the family. So, when the Gabriel told Zechariah that his son was to be named John, the angel was saying to him: “Yes you will have a child, but this child will not be like you. This child will not take on your profession.” Zechariah would have a child, but it would not be the child he expected or even the child he desired. This might be the reason why Zechariah resisted the angel’s words.
We need all of this background, if we are to understand today’s Gospel.
In the gospel, John the Baptist is born. With that birth there is no longer any doubt that Zechariah and Elizabeth will have a son. But there still is doubt whether they will accept the son that God has given them, embracing that child even though he will be different from the child they expected.
When the time comes to name the child, all the relatives plan to go on as usual. They intend to name the child Zechariah after his father. But Elizabeth objects. “No,” she says, “he will be called John.” In making that statement Elizabeth announces that she is ready, ready to accept the child that God gave her and to do it on God’s terms. This confuses the family. They point out to her, “Look, none of our relatives here has this name.” What they are saying to her is: “If you name him John, he is not going to be like us. He is going to be something different from what we have expected.” But Elizabeth stands her ground. So they make signs to Zechariah to see what name he would give him. He calls for the writing tablet and writes, “John is his name.” He thereby indicates that he, too, is ready, ready to accept this child on God’s terms even though he might have preferred someone else.
When we look at today’s Gospel in this light, it becomes an invitation to us to accept the people in our life—to accept them even if they have developed and changed in ways that we have not anticipated or perhaps not even desired. Perhaps we have a child or a grandchild that truly marches to a different drummer. Perhaps our spouse has develops interests and attitudes that we would never have expected. Perhaps we have a friend who has changed enough that we think he or she warrants a new name.
Now of course there are changes and attitudes that are not acceptable and when they happen we need to resist them. But when people in our lives change in ways that we would simply not prefer, this gospel invites us to be patient and to consider the possibility that God might be working in the life of the other person. Perhaps God is preparing him or her for something that God desires, shaping that person to be someone like John the Baptist, someone who can build God’s kingdom.
It took nine months for Elizabeth and Zechariah to accept the fact that their son would be a John, not a Zechariah. Their example should give us hope that with God’s grace, we can learn to accept qualities in the lives of others which we would not expect or prefer. Such acceptance is important. In many cases it is the only way we can continue to love a spouse, a child, or a friend.
Peter and Paul, Apostles
Growing Old in Christ
June 29, 2003
Three brothers who never married bought a house together and lived together harmoniously until they began to grow older and their minds began to slip. One day the older brother who was upstairs in the bathroom called out, “Charlie! Charlie! I have one foot in the bathtub and one on the floor. Am I getting in or getting out?”
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” said Charlie, running up the stairs to help his brother. But when he got to the landing he stopped and said, “Am I going up the stairs or coming down?”
The third brother who had watched all of these things shook his head and said, “Thank God I’m not like those other two. Knock on wood.” And he did knock on the wooden table in the hallway, but then he looked up and he said, “Is that someone at the front door or the back door?”
It is not easy growing old. None of us look forward to the time when our minds will begin to slip, when our health deteriorates, and when we need to be more dependent on other people. Jesus understands the process of aging because he describes it in today’s gospel. He says to Peter, “When you were younger you used to fasten your belt around you and go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not want to go.” What Jesus is pointing out is that as we grow older, we lose our independence. We are no longer able as we once were to fasten our belt around us and do whatever we wish. Less energy and faltering health reduce our options. Old age will fasten its belt around us and take us where we do not want to go. And the older we become, the truer we recognize Jesus’ words to be. None of us look forward to what the last years of our life might bring. We fear growing old.
This is why it is very important to realize that there is more in today’s gospel than simply a description of the aging process. There is also the promise that in our elder years we still have a mission, we will still be disciples.
Jesus assures Peter that even in his old age, he will still glorify God. It is therefore appropriate on this feast of Peter and Paul, two apostles who gave their entire life to the gospel, for us to ask, “As we grow older, how do we continue the mission that Christ gives us? How do we remain effective disciples?”
I would suggest to you that there are three qualities of aging disciples: wisdom, dependence, and clear priorities.
Older people have less energy, but they have more wisdom. They have decades of experience from which all could benefit, which everyone needs to hear. Older people have lived dreams that we are still dreaming. They have recovered from mistakes that we are about to make. Therefore it is the mission of an elderly disciple to share wisdom. Aging disciples should find opportunities to share the things they know with those who are younger. Every time their wisdom is shared they are following Christ’s command to feed His sheep.
Older people also give witness to the value of dependence. In our society we want to be free and not impose on anyone. Yet the highest value in life is not independence but interconnectedness. If love is to be given, there must be someone who accepts it. When elderly people graciously accept their dependence, they provide an opportunity for others to give. When they admit that they need help and assistance with honesty and humor, they provide an opportunity for love. Dependence can be a real gift when it connects us to one another in service and love.
Older people know the importance of clear priorities. Because they know that time and energy is limited, they must choose what is most important and bypass what is trivial. They know that life is too short to hold grudges, to spend time feeling sorry for themselves. They know that now is the time to enjoy the beauty of nature, the love of their family, and to deepen their relationship with God. When people in their senior years testify to these important priorities, they remind us how we should be living today.
Wisdom, dependence, clear priorities: three gifts that the senior members among us can provide better than anyone else. No matter how old we are, we still have a mission. No matter, if on certain days we are not sure whether we are going up or coming down, we can still be disciples. Jesus promised Peter that in his old age he would glorify God. For Jesus knew that all of us have value at any age. What Jesus said to Peter he says to the oldest members here this morning: “I need you. Follow me.”
Discipleship and Irony
June 29, 2008
Today’s Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul is about discipleship and irony. It would be best if we examined each of these qualities in turn.
Today’s feast is about discipleship because Peter and Paul were among the first disciples of the Church. They were founding apostles who preached the Good News to Jews and Greeks alike. Their discipleship shows us what discipleship is about. When we examine the lives of these two great apostles, it becomes clear that discipleship places demands upon us. It calls us to a higher standard. Being a disciple is more than knowing a few things about Christ and coming to church on Sunday. It is about giving ourselves as deeply as we can to the service of Christ. Peter and Paul gave their very lives. They were martyrs for the faith. Now we probably will not be called to die for Christ, but we are called to live for him. And we are called to live in a way which is distinctive, a way which is different because we believe.
What is that difference like? A story will help here. This is a true story. It was broadcast this March on National Public Radio. A young man, Julio Diaz, is a social worker in New York. One evening coming home from work, as he exited the subway, a teenager approached him with a knife and demanded his wallet. Julio gave it over immediately, but as the boy walked away he said to him, “Since it’s a cold night and you’re going to be out all night robbing people, why don’t you take my coat as well?” The boy stopped, confused, “Why are you offering me this?” “Well, you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few bucks, so you must be in need. When you stopped me, I was just going to get some dinner, which I would still like to do. Would you like to join me?” Perhaps because he was confused or intrigued, the young man agreed. They went to a diner which Julio often frequented. He greeted everyone warmly and treated people with respect. “Why do you treat people so well?” the boy asked. “Weren’t you taught to treat people well?” Julio responded. “Yes I was. But I never saw people actually living that way.” That led to a long conversation between the two of them. When the bill came, Julio said, “You’re going to have to pay for this because you have my wallet.” Without a second thought, the teenager gave his wallet back. “Thank you,” Julio said. “And now that I have money, I’d like to give you twenty dollars for that knife.” They agreed, and the deal was closed.
Now I do not share this story with you because I think that we should follow Julio’s actions exactly, if we find ourselves in a violent confrontation. I share it because in this story we see a man trying to be a disciple, trying to act differently in a situation which is a difficult one. If we are to be disciples of Jesus we have to allow the things that we believe to influence the way that we live, the decisions that we make. If we cannot see any difference between ourselves and others in the way that we love, in the way that we forgive, in the way that we vote, in the way that we use our money, then we are not really disciples of Jesus. We are certainly not following the example of Peter and Paul. To follow Christ means that we are willing to live to a higher standard, we are willing to be different because of what we believe. That is what today’s feast says about discipleship.
But we must not forget the irony. Both Peter and Paul were humble men, one a fisherman, the other a tent maker. Neither of them was adequately prepared to serve as the foundation for Christ’s Church. Moreover, they did not start out very well. Peter denied Christ. Paul persecuted the early Church. It is the highest irony that God would choose such weak and fallible people to begin the Church. But that irony is our hope. That irony reminds us that God does not choose us because we are so capable, but because God knows that we can become capable with God’s help. Our weaknesses can be overcome by God’s strength.
Discipleship is living according to a higher standard, being willing to be different because of the truth of the gospel. It is not easy to live in this way, but it is possible with God’s help. It is ironic that God would choose such weak people like Peter and Paul and us to be disciples, but that is what God does. In doing so, God removes any excuse. We cannot say, “It is impossible for me to live according to God’s standard.” God can make it possible. God will make it possible. With the same high expectation and irony that accompanied the call of Peter and Paul, God says to us, “Follow me.”
August 8: Transfiguration
August 6, 2017
Peter is one of the most important saints of the Christian tradition. He is the first of the apostles, the rock on which Jesus builds the church. The New Testament tells us many things about Peter. In fact in the gospels no other character is mentioned more than Peter with the exception of only Jesus himself. So what do the scriptures tell us about Peter? They tell us that he often speaks up with confidence, and that he is just as often wrong. Peter is the one who tries to convince Jesus to avoid the cross. Peter refuses to have his feet washed at the Last Supper. Peter thinks he can walk on water and sinks. Peter denies Jesus three times during Jesus’ trial. And in today’s gospel, Peter is the one who comes up with this bizarre idea of setting up tents on the Mount of Transfiguration. When you examine the incidents that refer to Peter, they are one blunder after another. Generally whenever Peter opens his mouth, he discovers that his foot is in it.
Now it might seem odd that this often-misguided disciple should become one of the greatest saints of the church. But flawed saints are the best saints, because they are like us and teach us how to live. What does Peter teach us? Peter shows us that following Jesus often involves the ability to re-evaluate our convictions. Peter regularly speaks up with boldness and confidence. But when he discovers that he is wrong, he is willing to change. In time he comes to accept that Jesus must bear the cross. He allows Jesus to wash his feet at the Last Supper. He repents of his denial of Jesus during the Passion. He lets go of the strange idea of pitching tents on the mountain. What Peter shows us is that part of discipleship is to re-examine our ideas, learn from our mistakes, and have the capacity to think again. This willingness to change is essential for both spiritual and personal growth.
Your spouse says something that irritates you, a son or daughter speaks out of turn, and you are quick to push back and say, “This is what’s going to happen. This is what is acceptable.” Your words are quick and hot, but are they the best? Can you with Peter think again, swallow your mistake, and start over. In this polarized political climate certain words trigger an immediate response: healthcare, immigration, tax reform. When one of these words is spoken, we speak our piece; we dig in our heels. But when we begin to realize that none of us is going to move forward with everyone dug into a ditch, can we be like Peter. Can we admit we spoke too quickly? Can we dial the energy back a bit and try again? Every time we face a transition in life, a transition resulting from divorce, retirement, or the loss of a loved one, we can be quick to adopt a conclusion. We claim our ground and say, “This is possible and this is not. This is what I will consider and this is what I will not do.” But once we see we are standing alone and going nowhere, can we admit with Peter, “I jumped too quickly. My thinking was misguided. I think I should re-consider my options.”
Revaluating our thinking is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of maturity and growth. This is why God gives us time to change. So the next time you speak too quickly and find that your foot is in your mouth, don’t bite down. Remove your foot, and like Peter—think again.
The Assumption of Mary
An Example for Ordinary Time
August 15, 2010
Luke 1: 39 – 56
There are many stories in the Gospels, and most of them are filled with wonder and drama. A choir of angels sing at Jesus’ birth. The heavens open as Jesus is baptized in the Jordan. Jesus heals the blind and walks on water. And of course the great event of our faith how Jesus on the third day is raised from the dead. Today’s gospel does not seem to fit into this august company. It recalls a simple event – Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth. There is no miracle, and there is little drama—just two pregnant women rejoicing in God’s goodness. Now at first we might be inclined to dismiss this gospel and consider it secondary to the other more dramatic scenes in the New Testament. But that would be a mistake, because the purpose of this simple story is to be the scriptural witness to the importance of the ordinary. The ordinary does not only comprise the majority of our lives, it is often the most important part of our lives.
Most of our lives are ordinary. We have some dramatic moments that we recall, like the day we met our spouse, or our first job, or the birth of a child, or the death of a parent. But most of our days are comprised of the ordinary routine, the repeating schedule of events. After they pass it is even hard to recall what happened, to remember what we did last Tuesday. Today’s Gospel helps us to appreciate such ordinary time. Mary’s visit to Elizabeth does not change the course of history. But it does bind these two women together in a relationship of friendship and love. It nurtures between them a relationship of trust and a relationship of faithfulness. That is no small matter. Because I believe that when we look back at the end of our lives, it will not be the dramatic highlights but rather the ordinary days of our lives that determine who we are.
So how do we live ordinary time well? Mary is our model here. Mary’s life in fact gives us a pattern of how to live in ordinary time. The pattern is this: ask and act. When Mary hears that Elizabeth is pregnant she does not get bound up in her own concerns and affairs, but rather she asks, “What does my cousin Elizabeth need?” And when the answer comes that a visit would be appropriate, Mary acts. She runs in haste to the hill country to pay a visit to her cousin Elizabeth.
You and I are recalled to repeat Mary’s pattern of asking and acting. Asking is not easy, because in order to ask the question what does the other person need we have to move beyond our own preoccupations and schedules. We have to place ourselves in the life or another. We have to imagine what good thing would bring them a blessing. And so it’s important for us to ask “What does my 8 year old son need from me? What does my spouse need from me? How could I make my mother’s life easier? How could I be present to a friend who just lost a parent? How can I show the colleagues with whom I work that I honor and respect them?” When we ask those questions, the way opens for us to act, and acting is good. But acting will not happen unless we make the space in our life to ask.
In each of our lives, there are a handful of highlights, dramatic events that we will always remember. But most of our lives are ordinary days of living. It is in those ordinary days that we must follow Mary’s example, asking what do the people in my life need from me and then acting on the answer we receive.
This might seem a very simple pattern, but if we put it into action the result will be more than we imagined. Because when we ask what others need then act on the answer, we like the pregnant Mary not only bring ourselves to others. We also carry Christ who is within us to everyone we serve.
The Triumph of the Cross
The Shame and Glory of the Cross
If you or I were starting our own religion, if we were outlining a new path to lead people to God, we would never choose the cross as our symbol. Because religion and spirituality are orientated towards eternal happiness, towards union with God, towards lasting joy, and the cross is a sign of suffering and death.
Historically the cross was invented by the Persians as in instrument for execution. It was then adopted by the Romans who inflicted it upon Jesus along with hundreds of thousands of other men and women who ran afoul of Roman power. Crucifixion was saved for the worst offenders because of its brutality and shamefulness. This made the cross a real stumbling block for the early church. As the early apostles went out to proclaim the good news, many drawn to Christianity were turned off when they heard that Jesus was crucified. Those early inquirers saw immediately what we often overlook: the cross is a form of capital punishment, a shameful method of execution. Before we domesticated the cross by including it into peaceful religious images and forming it into jewelry which we wear around our necks, the cross had the power to shock and offend. To catch some semblance of what this must have been like, imagine coming into a church and seeing in the sanctuary an image of Christ strapped into an electric chair or hanging from a noose. The cross was a sign of violence, brutality, and death.
So how is it that today we are gathered together to celebrate the feast of the Triumph of the Cross? How has this symbol of death become our symbol? How has it become for us a sign of life? It is not an easy question to answer. But let me point to two pieces of good news, two messages of life that come from our belief in the cross.
The first is this: The cross tells us that suffering is not punishment. When bad things happen to us, when we need to face sickness or loss, one of our most immediate reactions is, “Why is this happening to me? Why is God punishing me?” The cross, however, tells us is that Jesus, who was perfectly innocent and without guilt, was nevertheless crucified. Therefore, the easy equation between suffering and punishment, suffering and guilt is rendered invalid by the cross. We do not know why there is so much violence and evil in the world. We cannot explain why so many people have to suffer. But we do know that the simple assumption that pain is the result of my sin or punishment is a false conclusion in the light of the cross. The cross of Jesus tells us that suffering does not mean punishment.
The second piece of good news that comes from the cross is that suffering does not negate love. All through Jesus’ suffering, even as he died on the cross, God continued to love him. Indeed somehow the death of Jesus is completely circumscribed by love. Our gospel today says “God so loved the world that he sent his only son.” If God continued to love Jesus in the midst of suffering and death, then the cross of Christ tells us that when we suffer we can experience God’s love as well. The presence of the cross is not the absence of love.
Somehow God is present to us in our darkest hours. That makes the cross of Christ a sign of hope. Our heaviest burdens, our deepest pain, our most significant loss will not separate us from God’s love. Think of the heaviest burden you carry, the deepest evil you have to face, the hardest pain you need to bear. None of these indicate that God has stopped loving you. None of these evils separate you from God. If we can claim God’s love even in our deepest pain, then there is always reason for hope and always the possibility of life.
The cross which was a symbol of death has become for us a symbol of life. The cross which was an instrument of torture has become for us a proclamation of good news. The cross tells us that our suffering does not mean that we are punished, because one who was innocent, suffered as well. The cross tell us that our deepest pain cannot separate us from God’s love and promise of life. So let us today claim the cross for what it is: our sign of hope, our message of good news. No matter how deep our pain is, no matter how deep our loss is, the love of God is deeper still.
September 14. 2008
Matthew 20:1-16 / Philippians 1:20-24, 27
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. There are two distinct ways in which we can view this triumph or this victory. One way refers to what Christ has done; the other refers to what we are called to do. We usually focus on the first way, on what Christ has done. This viewpoint is given beautiful expression in today’s gospel: “God so loved the world that he sent his only son, that those who believe in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.” When we focus on what Christ has done through the cross, we recognize that through his death and resurrection, Christ has opened the way for us to eternal life. That is a triumph indeed.
But there is another way of looking at the victory of the cross. We can focus not on what Christ has done, but on what we are called to do. This approach is expressed in today’s second reading. There Paul tells us that Christ was born in human likeness and humbled himself to accept death on a cross. By this action, Christ identifies himself with the weakness and the brokenness of humanity. He becomes a slave and thereby makes the cross a sign of all who are victims in our world. In this sense the cross represents all those who are broken by poverty, injustice, prejudice, sickness, or violence. By looking at the cross from this perspective, it becomes for us a call to action. It asks us to stand in solidarity with those who suffer.
This call of the cross to stand with those who suffer is given a powerful expression in a poem by Stoddard Kennedy, who describes and compares Christ’s death on Calvary with a visit that Christ makes to the modern city of Birmingham, England.
When Jesus came to Calvary, they nailed him to a tree.
They crowned him with a crown of thorns.
Red were his wounds and deep,
for those were crude and cruel days
and human flesh was cheap.
When Jesus came to Birmingham,
they only passed him by.
They would not hurt a hair of him.
They only let him die.
For men had grown more tender.
They would not give him pain.
They only just passed down the street
and left him in the rain.
And so it rained, the winter rain,
that drenched him through and through.
And when all the crowds had left the street,
without a soul to see,
then Jesus crouched against a wall
and sighed for Calvary.
The cross is a sign for us to stand in solidarity with those who suffer.
By humbling himself and taking up the cross, Jesus identifies the cross with all who are victims in our world. Every time we act with indifference towards those who struggle with poverty, injustice, or violence, we act with indifference to Christ. Every time we walk away from someone who suffers, we crucify Christ again.
And so the gospel today tells us that we cannot remain indifferent to those who suffer in our families, to those who suffer because of sickness or divorce or grief. The gospel tells us that we cannot look at those who lack adequate education or health care or employment and leave them in the rain. The gospel tells us that we cannot ignore the policies of our country. Because of our immense power, what we do either helps or hinders the progress of struggling countries throughout the world. Every time we ignore those who suffer, we ignore our crucified Lord.
And so we are called today to stand in solidarity with those who are victims. We called to stand in solidarity in the way that we think, in the way that we that we use our resources, in the way that we vote, in the way that we spend our time. Every time that we choose to stand with those who suffer, every time we move from paralysis to action, from blindness to vision, from indifference to love, we move this world one step closer to the kingdom of God. Every time that we stand with those who are victims, we realize, in the deepest sense, the triumph of the cross.
Feast of All Saints
All the Saints
November 1, 2009
Today we celebrate the feast of All Saints. But who is a saint? Someone with a halo? Someone with hands always folded? Someone who looks good as a statue or on a holy card? Some saints meet those qualifications, but the number of saints is much larger than that.
Consider Margaret Breslan. Margaret is a single woman in her early 60’s. For the last 40 years she has taught the second grade. Through all those years she shepherded her students, not only through math and reading, but through tears on the first day of class, through colds and fevers, through the divorces of their parents, and through the hurt that comes from cruel classmates. Today former students come to visit Margaret, men and women, doctors, lawyers, and construction workers. They thank her for the love of learning that she instilled in their hearts at such an early age. They are grateful for the sense of confidence that she gave them through her discipline and care. Margaret Breslan is a saint.
Look at Matt Wilson. Matt is a young emergency paramedic in his late 20’s. His father died while he was still in grade school, and it gave Matt a deep sense of compassion for others. He brings that compassion to his work. When he’s called to a home with someone who is in grave danger, he skillfully diagnoses the problem and begins medical treatment. But Matt is also very conscious of the fear of his patients and their families. So he tries to take his time to explain what is happening and what can be done about it. And in those circumstances when there is nothing that can be done about it, when in fact the patient dies, Matt encourages the patient’s family to sit with the body for awhile and grieve. When there is only one person in the family who is left, Matt often sits with him or her, because he believes that death is not a time when anyone should be alone. Matt Wilson is a saint.
Look at Angela Tucci. Angela is one of seven brothers and sisters in a big Italian family. She makes it her business to know what is going on in the family. By e-mails and phone calls she stays in touch with all of her children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, great nieces and great nephews. When Angela senses any hint of dissention, when trouble begins to brew, she swings into action. She calls her nephew and says, “Anthony, your cousin Thomas is hurt because of what you said during the summer picnic. Call him. Make it right. Life is too short for grudges. Family is more important than your feelings.” Angela is often successful, because she has authority in her family. Everyone loves and respects Aunt Angela. Angela Tucci is a saint.
So is Mark Pestic. Mark is a seventh grader. He is on the football team, a good student, and a funny guy. He has lots of friends. But Mark does not just think of himself. He has already told Mrs. Bradley, the ninety-year-old widow on his street who is struggling to make ends meet, that he will shovel her walks this winter. And it is not uncommon for Mark to sit down at lunch with a classmate who has no friends, because Mark believes that no one should be excluded. Mark Pestic is a saint.
There are saints all around us. They come in all ages, genders, and occupations. Saints are those who make good happen in our world. What’s the difference between a good person and a saint? Not too much. Saints are good people seen from the perspective of faith. Through the eyes of faith, we see in others’ goodness something that points to God. Paul Tillich, the Protestant theologian says, “Saints are not so much saints because of their goodness, but because of their transparency. They point to something beyond themselves.” The evangelist Matthew says something very similar: “You are the light of the world. People will see your good actions and give praise to your heavenly father.” This is why Jesus in today’s gospel calls us blessed. People can see in our actions of gentleness, thirst for justice, peacemaking, and mercy, qualities which point to God, qualities that point beyond us to the source of all good.
We are surrounded by saints. Today we should give thanks for the people in our lives whose goodness leads us to God. Today we should recognize the goodness of the people around us and call them blessed. But even as we call them blessed, they call back to us. They call back from every time and place, their voices joining together in a mighty chorus. This is what they say: “It is right that you praise us for our goodness and how that goodness leads you to God. But it is not enough. Do not only praise us as saints. Be one.”
The Feast of All Souls
In Relationship Forever
November 2, 2003
There’s a German proverb which says, “Those who live in Christ will never see each other for the last time.” It is a beautiful thought, isn’t it? It is certainly a thought that is apropos to this feast that we celebrate today, the feast of All Souls. For today we remember our beloved dead and look forward to be reunited with them. Yet the older that we become and the closer that we draw to death, the easier it is to begin to doubt whether the reality of life after death is true. Once we have really lost someone we love in death, the more tempted we may be to ask, whether we are we only kidding ourselves about eternal life. Could it be that we do not want to face the frightful possibility that death is the final curtain, the end of the line?
Life after death, of course, requires belief. There is no way to prove eternal life. Yet can we find something to support our faith? Is there something that we can point to that could assist us in believing? We certainly have the words of Christ and the teaching of the church. Jesus says in today’s gospel, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even if they die will live. And those who believe and live in me will never die.” The consistent teaching of the church throughout the centuries is that Christ has conquered death and that we will reign with Christ forever. That is our faith. Yet, death is so personal and seemingly so final. Is there something else that can support us? Is there something more personal on which we can base the belief in eternal life?
I believe that there is. I would suggest to you that our faith in eternal life can be based upon our present faith in the life that we are living. What do I mean by this present faith? Present faith is our conviction, that the good things that happen to us in our life come from our relationship with a loving God. Present faith leads us to the conviction that the day that we met our future spouse for the first time was not simply a matter of good luck. It was the work of a God who was loving us and leading us to a union in which we could share life and love with another and together build a family. Present faith leads us to the assertion that God has saved us. We can claim that God was involved in healing my cancer, that God was involved in giving me power over my addiction, that God was involved when I reconciled with an estranged family member or perhaps even an enemy. Present faith tells us that the joy that we feel when we hold our newborn son or walk our daughter down the aisle at her wedding is not simply a joy that comes from good fortune, but is the result of a God who has loved us and blessed us.
Now clearly present faith cannot be proven. Those who do not have faith will say that we are deluding ourselves when we claim God is active in our lives. They will assert that life is a series of random events and that our joys and blessings are simply the result of good fortune. It is difficult to convince those who think in that manner that there is another way to view life. They simply do not believe. But we do believe. As believers we have hundreds of people and hundreds of events that we can claim as signs of God’s presence in our life. This is the present faith in which we live from day to day.
Once we claim this present faith, it can become the foundation for our faith in life eternal. Because if we believe that God has loved us and is loving us now, is it not logical, is it not even expected, that God will continue to love us even after death? If we believe that God has blessed us and is continuing to bless us now, why would we imagine that God would stop blessing us even when our life here comes to an end?
Today we celebrate the feast of All Souls. We remember our beloved family members and friends who have gone before us in death. We claim in the words of the German proverb that we have not seen them for the last time. But if you are tempted to doubt that truth, if you begin to question whether there is indeed life hereafter, then I suggest you do this. Claim your present faith. Ask yourself, “Do I believe that God has saved me, that God has blessed me, that God is loving me?” And once you claim those truths, ask yourself, “Why would God choose to limit those gifts to this life only?” If we believe that we belong to God today, can we not also believe that even after death that relationship with God will continue?
Finding the Eternal
November 2, 2014
The great cathedral in Milan, Italy, sits on a wide plaza. You can enter the church through three massive doors. Above each door there is an inscription. The inscription on the door to the left reads, “What pleases lasts but a moment.” The inscription on the door to the right reads, “What troubles lasts but a moment.” The inscription on the great central door reads, “It is the eternal that matters.” The architect of this church was trying to convey that most of the joys and sorrows of our lives pass rather quickly. It is the eternal that is important, for the eternal goes on forever.
Now usually when we think of the eternal we imagine what happens after death, eternal life with God. Although this is certainly true, today’s gospel makes clear that such an understanding is incomplete. In the gospel, Martha and Jesus are discussing life in light of the death of Martha’s brother, Lazarus. Martha believes that her brother will rise again in the future, on the last day. Jesus corrects her. Jesus certainly believes that there will be a resurrection on the last day, but he insists that he is the resurrection and the life. Jesus knows that the eternal is important, but he teaches that the eternal can start before death for those who have faith in him.
So in what sense does the eternal start now? What are the actions that have an eternal quality that go on forever? I would suggest two to you: sacrifice and thanksgiving. When we sacrifice ourselves for the sake of another, when we give of ourselves in a way that makes a difference in the life of someone else, there is something eternal in our action. When we witness the way that a parent loves his or her child, the way that a child cares for his aging parent, or the way time and energy is spent to correct something that is wrong in our school, neighborhood, or world, those actions are not just for a moment. There is something in that kind of giving that goes on and flows into eternity. Sacrificing for the sake of love is one of the things that matter.
So is thanksgiving. When we truly appreciate what we have received, how we have been blessed, when we see how we have been loved by a spouse, by a friend or by our God, that kind of thankfulness not only humbles us but lifts us up. It is not a feeling for a moment, but it both anticipates and actuates the eternal love of God that will surround us forever. Thanksgiving in its deepest sense is eternal.
How do I know that sacrifice and thanksgiving are eternal? I know because those are the things that matter to those who are close to death. When I visit people in the last hours of their lives, they do not focus on the joys and sorrows that have passed long ago. What is important to them is how they have given for the sake of another and how they are loved by their family, by their friends, and by God. These are the things that are important. For those on the very edge of life, sacrifice and thanksgiving are eternal.
So today as we remember our beloved dead who we believe are already in the presence and glory of God, it is good for us to recommit ourselves to what matters. We should rededicate ourselves to give in sacrificial love to others and to live a life in thanksgiving for all that we have received. Of course in faith we believe that one day we will join our beloved dead in heaven. But there is nothing wrong in living our lives in such a way that eternity begins today.
The Dedication of the Lateran Basilica
Living in Visible Power
November 9, 2003
1 Corinthians 3:9c-11, 16-17
It happens to me quite frequently, when I am invited out to some party or social gathering and begin to mix with people. When it becomes clear that I am a priest, someone says, “Father, don’t get me wrong. I believe in God. I live a moral life. I believe that God’s word is in the Scriptures. But what I don’t believe in is the Church. I can pray on my own. I can do good work on my own. I do not need to belong to an institution.”
Now there are millions of people like that in the world and they are often very good people. They are people who practice a personal faith, a private religion. This approach in many ways makes their life simpler and to some extent freer. They do not have to come to Mass on Sunday morning. They do not have a Pope or a Bishop telling them what they should think or how they should act. They do not have a Pastor asking them to make a pledge to the building campaign. So, it might be good for us to ask, “What is the value of belonging to the Church? What benefit is there in having a shared identity as Catholics? What advantage can we see in being a part of an institution?”
Today is a good day to ask that question, because today we celebrate the feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran. St. John Lateran is not a person, it is a building. It is the Cathedral Church of Rome. Many people think that the Cathedral Church of Rome is St. Peter’s, but it is not. St. John Lateran is the church where the Pope as the bishop of Rome presides. It is of course an old building. The land was given to the early Christians by the emperor, Constantine, shortly after Christianity became a public religion. The first church of St. John Lateran was dedicated on November 9, 324. That is 1,679 years ago today. This church raises the institutional question. Why should we be remembering a church building? Why should we here in Willoughby Hills, together with people in Africa and Alaska, be celebrating a feast of an old basilica in Rome, thousands of miles away? What is the advantage of an institutionalized religion?
Now there are many ways that one could answer that question, but I want to present to you two values that I think come from being part of a church: visibility and power. Christ asks us not simply to believe, but to believe in a way that it can be seen. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Let your light shine before others.” Being part of an institutional church gives our life of faith visibility. Our connectedness with one another, our organization, our Church leadership, and, yes, even our buildings say to the larger community, “There are Christians living here.” Such institutional characteristics provide us with visibility in society.
The institution of the church also gives us a certain kind of power, the power to influence the world for good. Harry Fagan was a local activist here in Cleveland during the 1970’s. Harry used to talk about the necessity of the Church having power to influence society for the good. He insisted that real power consisted in two essential components: knowledge and numbers. He believed that if you want to have the power to make a change in the political structure, you needed both. He would say, for example, if you have a problem with stray dogs in your neighborhood and your government officials do not respond to that problem, you need knowledge and numbers. If you go downtown to the mayor complain about the problem but you do not have the knowledge of where the dogs are, how many people have been bitten, and who is responsible for taking care of them, the mayor can use your lack of information to dismiss your concern. He can say, “You do not have the right information. Go home.’ But knowledge is not enough. You also need numbers. If you have all the correct information, if you know everything about the dogs and who is responsible, but you go downtown by yourself, you can be dismissed as having a personal concern that other people do not support. But if fifty people go with you, those in power will listen. When you have knowledge and numbers together, you have power. With power, things will change.
The institutional Church gives us numbers. Every Christian knows what Christ asks us to do, but being part of an institution gives us numbers so that we might influence society for the better. When we stand together with other Catholics in this diocese, in the world, we have the ability to push the world towards greater justice, greater love, and greater peace.
So, today we come together to celebrate the dedication of a building. But, the Church is more than a building, it is a people. As St. Paul says in today’s second reading, “You are Christ’s building. You are the temple of God.” The Gospel today calls us to be the Church in the way that we live our lives. So, let us today as institutional Catholics be that Church. Let us be the Church through loving our family and welcoming the stranger. Let us be the Church as we listen to those who suffer and work for justice. When we stand together as part of the Roman Catholic Church and its institutional structure, we have the ability to make Christ more visible in our society. We have the opportunity to let the power of the Gospel spread throughout the world.
Change and Continuity
November 9, 2014
1 Corinthians 3:9c-11, 16-17
It may seem today that we are celebrating a church building in the city of Rome, but we are not. There is, of course, a church building in view. It is the basilica of St. John Lateran, the oldest basilica in the city of Rome, the cathedral of the pope, and often called the mother of all Christian churches. But this basilica is not our main concern. St. Paul makes this clear in the second reading where he tells the Corinthians and us that we are the building of God. We are God’s holy temple. So the church is not a building of wood and stone, but an assembly of believers in whom the Holy Spirit dwells. So to the extent we remember this basilica in Rome, we do so that it might help us to be buildings of God ourselves, better holy temples. How can the Basilica of St. John Lateran help us to live the Christian life? It points to change and continuity.
The history of St. John Lateran is a history of change and continuity. The land upon which the church stands was given to Pope Melchiades by the emperor, Constantine, in 314. That’s 3-1-4, very long ago. The Pope built a church on it. In 443 an earthquake destroyed the church, and it was rebuilt. In 455 the Vandals sacked the city of Rome and destroyed the church again, and it had to be rebuilt. Around the year 900 another earthquake leveled the church and it was built yet again. It was destroyed twice by fire in 1308 and 1360. And it was extensively expanded and remodeled in the fifteenth century and in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. The history of St. John Lateran is a history of change. Yet it is the same church.
This history invites us to accept the changes that come about in our lives and to celebrate the good things that continue. We tend to fear change and to resist it, but change is a part of God’s plan for us. A healthy life can only be lived as we learn how to negotiate transitions. We have to be willing to leave behind some of the good relationships that we made in high school or college, to adjust from one job to another, to cope as our children leave home or as we leave home ourselves for retirement living. We have to re-focus when our health fails, when our marriage ends, or when we lose someone we love in death. In any of these transitions we are tempted to say, “My life is ended. The beautiful edifice in which I have been living is destroyed.” But life can continue, and we believe that God moves with us into the future. We cannot anticipate all the changes and transitions of life, but God knows all of them. God is already working to give us the strength to face them. God is already acting to place new people and new places into our life that will allow us to grow.
Even as these changes take place, God makes sure that there are some good things in our life that continue. There are some friends from high school and college who remain friends with us throughout their entire lives. There are some things that we learned in our first job that we still use today. There are customs and memories that connect us to our adult children and to those we have lost in death. Even as change pushes us forward, there is the continuity of who we are and how we love. Even as life shifts in a new direction, we are still the same person that God cares for and that God has saved.
Change and continuity is the pattern of life. This should give us hope. Like the Basilica of St. John Lateran, we will change over and over again. But this does not need to be harmful. In fact, it is something holy—not a holy church building in Rome, but a holy people who understand that our God is always building and rebuilding us, always making us new.