Sunday, May 21, 2017

Sixth Sunday of Easter

St. John Vianney said that if we really understood how much God loves us, we would die from joy.

God’s burning desire is to share God’s very life with us.  That’s why Jesus was born and then died and was raised again.  That’s why the Holy Spirit has been given to us.  And the invitation is given in the form of a new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Jesus told the disciples at the Last Supper that the Father would send them another Advocate.  Jesus was their first advocate.  For years, he was at their side, teaching, and listening to them. Jesus cared for them, and now that he is about to leave them, he promises another Advocate. 

The new Advocate is the Holy Spirit who will lead and guide them.  The Holy Spirit will give them words to speak and teach them how to pray.  The Holy Spirit will strengthen them and help them to continue the works of Jesus.  All this is love.  And, of course, this is promised to us as well.

Jesus is the way into the life and love of God.  We are invited to dwell there, loving God and others in return.  Knowing this in our head is one thing.  We need to ask God for the grace to know it in our hearts.  The love of God needs to be the most important part of our lives.  Once we know and believe that God truly loves us, life is changed forever. 

As we approach the Feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost, we pray as Christians have for centuries, “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love.”  

Perhaps one day we may die from joy.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Fifth Sunday of Easter

God’s great desire is that we share in God’s life now and for all eternity.  That’s why we were created, as I learned from the Baltimore Catechism in first grade.  “Why did God make me?”  “God made me to know him, to love him, and to serve him in this world, so as to be happy with him forever in the next.”

We celebrate and remember this during the 50 days of the Easter Season.  Jesus has conquered sin and death and has won us our salvation and gives us the gift of eternal life.  In today’s gospel, the Lord tells us disciples at the Last Supper that they are to trust him for he is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

We know from the Old Testament that no one can look on the face of God and live.  Yet, at the given time, God, desiring to be united with us, took on our humanity and entered into our world, sharing everything with us, except sin.  Now we know that when we look upon Jesus, we see the Father.  We have received the gift from the Father and Jesus, the Advocate, who is the Holy Spirit and has been poured into our hearts.  We don’t have to wait for this life to be over to share in the life of God.  We do so already.

Our life in Jesus, the Way that has been marked out for us, begins at our Baptism when we become a child of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus, and have our hearts filled with the love of God, as the Holy Spirit is poured into our hearts.  And we are strengthened with that same Spirit in Confirmation.  We receive Jesus, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Eucharist.  These three gifts are the Easter Sacraments, the Sacraments of Initiation, and having received them we are firmly rooted in the Way that we are to follow for the rest of our lives passing through death into eternal life.

The Way also offers us two Sacraments of Healing for when we are in need.  The Sacrament of Reconciliation restores us to grace when we sin and places us back on the Way after we have strayed in big or small ways.  God will always welcome us back and carry us forward with God’s mercy.  And when we are sick, God’s healing is given in the Sacrament of the Sick.

Likewise, there are two Sacraments of Vocation: Marriage for those who, reflecting the love of Christ for the Church, join their lives together in fidelity and love, and Holy Orders, for those men who serve the Church in imitation of Jesus, the Good Shepherd who through his ministers, continues to provide spiritual nourishment, service, teaching and guidance to his flock.

We do not follow Jesus only as individuals.  We are a community who gather for the Eucharist and then are sent out to serve the world and to preach the Gospel as we do so.

Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  We follow him faithfully as members of his Church, trusting him each day until we join him in the dwelling place he has prepared for us.  Alleluia!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Fourth Sunday of Easter - Good Shepherd Sunday

Sheep need someone who knows them and can call them by name.  Sheep need someone who will lead them to food and water.  When sheep fall and are unable to get back up, they need someone who will pick them up and set them on their feet again.  Sheep need someone to lead them, someone they can follow so as not to get into trouble, and when there is trouble approaching, they need someone who will protect them.  And in the dark of night, when danger is all about, they need someone who will stay with them and will ward off thieves or wolves who seek to steal them or kill them. 

Learning about sheep made the reality of Jesus being the Good Shepherd more meaningful for me.  How often we are like sheep and are in need of help or rescue.  How often we are like sheep and need someone to call us by name, someone whose voice brings us a sense of peace and security.  And there are times when we, like sheep, fall and either can’t or won’t get up again.   We need someone stronger than ourselves to lift us up and stay with us with the promise that all will be well.  Jesus can and will do all of that for each and every one of us.

We need to come to know his voice and to respond to his call and directions.  We need to be humble enough to follow him and look to him when we sense there may be trouble at hand.  The Good Shepherd will be there for us, but we need to call out to him and ask for help. 

I once heard a story about a little lamb would not stay with the shepherd.  Instead, he always went off on his own and got into all kinds of trouble.  So the shepherd took the lamb and broke one of his legs, rendering him unable to walk.  Then the shepherd placed the lamb on his shoulders and carried him everywhere until the leg was healed.  As a result of spending all that time so close to the shepherd, the lamb never strayed again, but always kept close.

The point of the story is that God may allow some of the suffering in our lives in order to bring us closer to the Lord than we ever could have imagined.  Scripture tells us that the Lord is close to the broken-hearted and when we are brought so low that we have nowhere else to go, God is always there waiting for us.  And when we seek comfort and stay close to him, like the little lamb, we learn that we never want to stray far from the Lord again.

In the middle of the joyous Easter Season, it is good that we take the time each year on the fourth Sunday to remember that the Risen Lord is our shepherd, and when we stay close to him, there is nothing we shall want.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Third Sunday of Easter

Scripture often speaks of life as a journey or a sojourn, as Peter does in the second reading today.  For Christians, our journey is one of faith and trust in God and we hope to end the journey by making it to heaven as God desires. And, obviously, we do not make the journey alone.  People are with us, although some leave us abruptly, while others wander away gradually.

The last week of April contains two important anniversaries for me.  On April 26, 1971, my younger brother died when he was 7.  And almost exactly forty years later, my father died on April 28, 2011.  Our faith tells me that I will see them again, provided I remain faithful to my journey, and there have been times over the years when I have felt their presence with me quite strongly.  I believer they are still with me, but it is different now.

The first disciples were blessed to have been with Jesus during his preaching and ministry.  And after the Resurrection, they were privileged to have seen him again.  But it was different.  Jesus wasn’t always with them the way he was before his death.  He would appear suddenly, even through locked doors, and then he would vanish from their sight.  It was indeed Jesus, but they didn’t always recognize him. 

In today’s gospel, we hear of new ways that Jesus is present to two of his followers, Cleopas and his companion.  It’s a beautiful story for all of us who put our faith in the Risen Lord, for he can be present to us in the same three ways.

First, Cleopas and his companion invited Jesus to stay with them.  They offered hospitality to a stranger who would be continuing his journey in the dark.  They knew he must have been hungry and thirsty, so, being charitable, they asked him to join them with the simple words, “Stay with us.”  The parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25 teaches us that whenever help is given to someone in need, Jesus is present.  As a good story teller, Luke doesn't just tell us, he shows us the same teaching.  We need to remember that whenever charity, kindness, and acceptance are offered to another, the Holy Spirit is at work, and Jesus is present.

Second, this stranger had spoken to the two disciples about the Scriptures and how they applied to Jesus.  He showed them how everything that had happened in Jerusalem was part of God’s plan.  And as he did so, the hearts of the two who listened were on fire.  The disappointment, self-pity, and despair that had enveloped them were lifted from them.   They were set free by the words and understanding they heard from their unknown friend.  Jesus will do the same for us.  When we read the Scriptures in a prayerful, believing way, Jesus, who is the Word of God, will speak to our hearts.  Reading and praying over God’s word is one of the best ways to draw closer to the Lord.  Again, the Holy Spirit is at work and Jesus is present.

Third, when the three sat down at the table, Luke tells us that Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, and their eyes were opened and they recognized him “in the breaking of the bread.”  That is an expression the early church used for the Eucharist or Mass.  When we gather together and pray and ponder Scripture and, then at the altar, pray and bless and break bread and receive it, Jesus is present in the most mysterious of ways.  For, as at the Last Supper, so at every Mass, the Lord takes what we offer and in return, gives us, not bread and wine, but his Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. 

Encountering Jesus in these three ways requires faith. We need to believe that the Holy Spirit is at work, especially when we gather as a praying community.  We need to trust that Jesus desires to be with us and receives our love when we care for those in need.  We also have to take time to read the Scriptures so that Jesus can manifest himself to us and speak to us.  And finally, we ought to desire to receive the Lord in the Eucharist as often as we can, for he is the Bread of Life.  We cannot stray far when we stay close to the Eucharist.

The Easter Season is a good time to ask God for an increase in the three gifts that remain: faith, hope, and love.  When we act in faith, hope, and love, Jesus will be with us in amazing and surprising ways.  And with the Lord as a companion, our way will be joyful, even when we are suffering.  We may not always feel his presence the same way -  it may be different -  but he will never leave us.  And all the Lord asks is that we place our trust in him.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Second Sunday of Easter - Divine Mercy Sunday

In today’s gospel account, the risen Jesus appears to the disciples both on Easter night and a week later.  He breathes on them, just as God breathed life into Adam in Genesis.  Jesus gives the disciples new life through the gift of the Holy Spirit.  And the Spirit is given to them so that they might be instruments of God’s mercy.  Just as they will make him present in the breaking of the bread, so too he shares with them the power to forgive or retain sin.

Easter is a time for deepening our relationship with Jesus.  What better way to do that than being forgiven and healed of our sins.  Too often distance and pain creep into relationships that lack honesty and forgiveness.  Jesus knows that.  The Council of Trent in 1551 taught that it was this gospel moment in John 20 in which the Lord established the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  When we confess our sins to a priest, who takes the place of Jesus, we are healed and reconciled, both to the Lord and to others. 

The encounter between Thomas and Jesus the following week assures us that we need not fear judgment of condemnation when we stand before Jesus.  Instead, as with Thomas, Jesus meets us where we are, as he calls forth from us faith and trust in him. 

When we decide to live for Jesus, we do so as members of his Church, for God’s desire is that we be a community united in Christ.  In the first line of today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Luke writes of the four essential priorities of the first Christians:  “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.” 

Centuries later, these are still the foundations for faithful life as members of the Church.  We ought to know our faith as passed down to us from the apostles and their successors.  We need to be committed to each other as a community, particularly in caring for those who are in need.  We need to have the Eucharist, “the breaking of the bread,” at the heart of our life and worship, and, finally, we need to be people of prayer, both individually and as a community.  

Jesus has to be the center of each of our individual lives and of our community life as his Church.  The Christian life is not to be lived alone.  Instead we commit ourselves to spending time to be with the Lord as a community in prayer and to work together to continue his work.  Jesus calls us to be his witnesses, and by doing that to bring others to him. 

We are blessed.  We have not seen him, but we love him.  And in loving him, we trust him.  And in trusting him, we open ourselves to all that he wants to give us, especially his mercy. 

Therefore, as Peter tells us in today’s second reading, we rejoice, as we move closer to the goal of our faith, the salvation of our souls.  

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Easter Sunday - The Resurrection of the Lord

Mary Magdalene and her friends, having seen the angel who told them Jesus was alive and that they would see Jesus, hurry to tell the others.  Although the angel told them not to be afraid, they were both fearful and overjoyed as they ran to find the disciples.

“And behold, Jesus met them on the way and greeted them.   The angel spoke the truth to them and his word is true for us also.  We too will meet Jesus as we continue on our way and he will greet us.  We know from Scripture that he will never leave us.  Through the Church, his promised presence is manifested in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.  But the Risen Christ is with us each moment and will listen whenever we turn our minds and hearts to him.

We know from the stories of the Easter appearances that Jesus always asked his disciples to let go of fear and in its place to know his peace.  Peace was his gift to the apostles at the Last Supper and he reminded them of that peace each time he appeared to them after the Resurrection.  That peace, like his presence, is an Easter gift to us as well, since we too are disciples.

And as Peter preached after Pentecost, Jesus gives us pardon from our sins through his name.  We need not fear judgment or condemnation.  We do not have to be afraid that our weakness will cause the Lord to leave us.  Instead, we put our trust in him and in the power of his name and we are forgiven.

The presence, peace, and pardon of Jesus are given to us as gifts from God as we remember and give thanks for the Pascal Mystery.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord

Our gospel story ends this Sunday at the tomb of Jesus.  He has suffered and died and a few faithful followers have quickly placed his body in a new grave as the Sabbath begins and a guard has been posted.

Every other Sunday the gospel tells of Jesus at work: healing, preaching, traveling, eating with sinners, proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven in both word and action.  He is active and alive, filled with the Holy Spirit, doing the Father’s work.  But today we remember that he has died.

In the passion account Jesus patiently and humbly endures all that was done to him: the physical pain, the betrayal, the abandonment, the denial, and the condemnation to death.  He submitted himself to all of it and in doing so emptied himself in every possible way.  And now he has died and been placed in a tomb.

I went to church early this morning so that I could walk through the parish cemetery before Mass.  Each grave is marked with a large wooden cross and is surrounded by colorful, abundant plants and flowers.  I prayed for those who were buried there.  There were all Christians, which means each of them took up their cross and followed after Jesus.  They sought to serve others as Jesus did.  They also suffered and as he did, and finally they each died as Jesus did.   Some, no doubt, lived a virtuous life and had a peaceful death: others struggled often, perhaps even at the end. Some of them died when they were but children; others reached a good old age. But they were all like Jesus and experienced what he did.

Next Sunday we celebrate the awesome reality that death is not the final word for Christians.  Jesus rose from the dead and lives today, and through our baptism and faith in him, we too will share in that resurrection.

But today it seems good to ponder the suffering that we have yet to face in our lives.  Perhaps it will be physical, mental or spiritual pain.  Maybe we will be abandoned by those closest to us or betrayed by a friend.  We have heard again in today’s gospel how Jesus endured his suffering and we pray for the same grace for ourselves for when we need it. 

We also might prayerfully consider our death.  If, during our life, we have imitated the Lord in emptying ourselves and surrendering all to God in trust, then death will simply be one final letting go.  What happens after that is the Good News of next Sunday.  But for now, we remember and realize again that suffering and the cross is the only way to get there.