Sunday, April 23, 2017

"YOU MUST BE BEGOTTEN OF WATER AND THE SPIRIT."


Homily for April 24th, 2017: John 3:1-8.

          Most of those who responded to Jesus’ teaching by coming to believe in him were “little people,” as the world reckons such things. In today’s gospel we meet an exception. Nicodemus was member of the Sanhedrin, the elite 70-man Jewish ruling body that went back to Moses. He comes to Jesus at night. He doesn’t want his fellow Sanhedrin members, almost all of whom are either hostile to Jesus, or indifferent, to know about his visit. The night visit may also have a symbolic meaning. John’s gospel is rich in symbolism. Nicodemus is coming from the darkness of disbelief, or at least of weak belief, to the One who is the light of the world.

There was similar symbolism in the gospel for Tuesday in Holy Week, also by John. After Judas leaves the Upper Room where Jesus was celebrating his Last Supper with the twelve apostles, John tells us: “And it was night.” For Jesus, however, it was not night. “Now is the Son of Man glorified,” he cries out, “and God is glorified in him.”

Nicodemus has been impressed by Jesus’ miracles – which ones we are not told. Calling Jesus “Rabbi,” Nicodemus says: “We know you are a teacher come from God, for no man can perform signs and wonders such as you perform unless God is with him.” This stops far short of acknowledgement that Jesus is the Messiah. There were other holy rabbis who performed signs and wonders. 

This explains Jesus’ less than enthusiastic response. You cannot see God’s kingdom, he tells Nicodemus, unless you are “begotten from above,” in other words, “born of God as your Father.” A father “begets” the child whom a mother “bears.” Jesus’ meaning becomes clear only when he says: “No one can enter God’s kingdom without being begotten of water and the Spirit.”

That is what happened to each of us when we were baptized. Through the Holy Spirit, and the pouring of water, God our Father made us his children, brothers and sisters of his divine Son, Jesus, and heirs of the kingdom of heaven. That is our eternal destiny. And the only thing can prevent the fulfillment of this destiny is our own deliberate and final No. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

'HE REBUKED THEM FOR THEIR DISBLIEF."


April 22nd, 2017: Easter Saturday. Mark 16: 9-15.

          Throughout Easter week we have been hearing gospel readings which tell of the risen Lord Jesus sending out those to whom he appeared to proclaim that he is risen. On Monday he encountered the women visiting his empty tomb and told them: “Do not be afraid! Go and carry the news to my brothers . . .” On Tuesday we heard him giving the same command to Mary Magdalene. On Wednesday he encountered two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus and made himself known to them “in the breaking of the bread” – the first post-Easter celebration of Mass. On Thursday we heard the account of Jesus appearing to the apostles, with the previously missing Thomas, a week after Easter. “You are witnesses of all this,” he tells them: not just a statement, but also a command. Yesterday we heard about Jesus encountering seven of his apostles, tired from a night of fruitless fishing on the lake, and charged Peter to “feed my sheep.”

          Today’s gospel reading is a kind of summary of all this. Twice over we hear that even after hearing the testimony of people who had seen the risen Lord, “they refused to believe.” Sitting at table with the eleven remaining apostles Jesus “takes them to task for their disbelief and stubbornness,” Mark writes, “since they had put no faith in those who had seen him after he had been raised.”

          Note what immediately follows. To these men whose faith was not merely weak, but missing entirely, Jesus says: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to all creation.” That challenged not only those eleven at table with Jesus. It also challenges us. When we think our faith is too weak to enable us bear witness to the risen Lord, and to proclaim his good news to an often hostile though hungry world, we should remember: the first witnesses were also weak in faith, even lacking in any faith. Yet Jesus did not hesitate to send them. He knew that in the very act of proclaiming the good news to others their own faith would be kindled, and deepened.

Another man who knew that was the namesake of the present Pope: St. Francis of Assisi. “Preach always,” Francis said. “When necessary, use words.”

Thursday, April 20, 2017

PETER'S CALL, AND OURS.


April 21st, 2017: Easter Friday. John 21:1-14.
AHave you caught anything?@ Jesus calls out from the shore at dawn to his friends in their boat. What he really said was: AYou haven=t caught anything, have you?@ Jesus was poking fun at their lack of success in the one thing they were supposed to be good at: catching fish. Not once in the gospels is there any record of Peter and his friends catching a single fish without Jesus= help. Here that help is the command to try again. They do so – and at once they feel the net heavy with fish. One of those in the boat tells Peter: AIt is the Lord.@ It is the unnamed Adisciple whom Jesus loved.@ Peter and the others hurry ashore and find a charcoal fire with fish on it, and bread. Knowing that they would be hungry after their long night=s labor, Jesus has made breakfast for them.
Did Peter recall another charcoal fire, at night, in the courtyard of the High Priest=s house at Jerusalem, where Peter stood warming himself? APeter was distressed,@ we heard in the gospel, because Jesus asked his question a third time. Of course he was distressed! The memory of his three-fold denial at that other fire was painful. Peter=s thrice repeated assurance of love is his rehabilitation. In response to each pledge of love, Jesus assigns Peter responsibility: to feed Jesus= sheep.
Why did Jesus give this responsibility to Peter, of all people? Jesus gave the office of leader to the friend whose love was imperfect; whose impetuosity and weakness made the name Jesus gave him C Peter, the rock C as ironic as calling a 350-pound heavyweight ASlim.@.
Is there someone here today who feels weak? You have made so many good resolutions. Some you have kept, others not. You have high ideals. Yet time and again you have compromised. You had so many dreams, hopes, plans. How many have you achieved? You wanted so much. You have settled for so little. If that is your story, you have a friend in heaven. His name is Simon Peter. 

If, like Peter, you have discovered that you are weak, that command is reassuring. Jesus doesn’t ask you to be strong, for he knows your weakness. He doesn’t ask you to be a pioneer or a leader. He knows that is too hard: that you would soon lose your way C or at least your nerve. He asks one thing alone. He asks you to follow him. 

Following Jesus Christ is not always easy. If you know your weakness, however, you have an advantage over those who still think they are strong. Then you will trust, as you try to follow your Master and Lord, not in any strength of your own, but only and always in the strength of Jesus Christ. His strength is always reliable; and it is always available. We have only to ask, and Jesus is there.  

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

"THOMAS WAS NOT WITH THEM."

“THOMAS WAS NOT WITH THEM ...”
April 23rd, 2017: 2nd Sunday of Easter, Year A. Acts 2:42-47; John 20: 29-31.
AIM: To help the hearers better appreciate the communal dimension of faith.
 
          “Thomas, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.” Where was he? We don’t know. One Easter, a few years ago, a man struggling with alcoholism suggested to me that Thomas may have been so devastated by Jesus’ crucifixion that he went on a week-long drinking binge. That’s not impossible.
          While Thomas may have been looking for Jesus on his own, Jesus himself was appearing to the apostles “on the evening of that first day of the week”, as we have just heard in our gospel reading. The first day of the week was Sunday. For Jesus, as for all his friends, the climax of the week was not Sunday, but the day before, the Sabbath. The third of the Ten Commandments ordered God’s people to keep the Sabbath holy, by resting from unnecessary work. In his book Jesus of Nazareth Pope Benedict writes: “It is clear that only an event of extraordinary impact could have led to the abandonment of the Sabbath and its replacement by the first day of the week. Only an event that marked souls indelibly could bring about such a profound realignment in the religious culture of the week.” (p. 259)  That was why the earliest Christians designated Sunday as “the Lord’s day.” It was the day, his friends recognized, on which the risen Lord came to be with his people, gathered to hear the word of God, and to receive the bread of life.
          On the evening of that first Lord’s day, the day of Jesus’ resurrection, Thomas was absent. He did not see Jesus until he joined the other apostles a week later. Then he uttered what many scripture scholars believe may have been the last words spoken by any of Jesus’ disciples in the original version of John’s gospel: “My Lord and my God!” The words come at the end of chapter 20. Scripture scholars believe that chapter 21, which follows, is an appendix, added to the original version later, possibly by another writer.           
Thomas’s experience has an important lesson for us. We normally encounter Jesus not one-on-one, but when we gather with our brothers and sisters in the great family of God which we call the Catholic Church. Purely personal encounters with the Lord — such as that enjoyed by Mary Magdalene on the morning of the resurrection, by the two disciples on the road to Emmaus that afternoon, or by the apostle Paul outside Damascus — are exceptions, not the norm. And when they do occur, such one-on-one encounters are never just for the individual, to give that person a great spiritual experience. Down through history Jesus comes to specially chosen souls so that they can go to others as his witnesses, empowered by him to say: “I have seen the Lord.”
          Who are the Thomases in our world today, seeking the Lord on their own?  There are many – people who are sincerely seeking the Lord, but who prefer to do so apart from the worshiping and believing community. Religion, they say, is personal and private. In that they are right — but only half right. The religion of Jesus Christ is personal. But it is not private. People who neglect the communal dimension of our faith are constructing a private religion of their own, and a private church. They need to learn the lesson Thomas learned: that the Lord comes first and foremost when we are gathered together with our fellow believers. 
          Our Christian and Catholic faith is not a private me-and-God affair. Jesus teaches us this in the one prayer he gave us. It begins not “My Father,” but “Our Father.” We pray as members of a community. We need each other. We believe not as isolated individuals, but as members of the family into which we were reborn in baptism: the Catholic Church. That is how the apostle Thomas came to faith in the risen Lord: when he rejoined his fellow apostles.
          Nor is faith something we can summon up on our own. It is a gift. And the Lord uses his Church to give us this gift. It is in the Church, moreover, that our faith is nourished. Here is how the Catechism explains it: “Faith is a personal act – the free response of the human person to the initiative of God who reveals himself. But faith is not an isolated act. No one can believe alone, just as no one can live alone. You have not given yourself faith as you have not given yourself life. The believer has received faith from others and should hand it on to others.”
          And the Catechism continues: “Our love for Jesus and for our neighbor impels us to speak to others about our faith. Each believer is thus a link in the great chain of believers. I cannot believe without being carried by the faith of others, and by my faith I help support others in their faith.” [No. 166]
          Let me close with a personal statement of faith. If I am a believing Christian today, and happy to be a priest – indeed not just happy, but overjoyed – it is because I grew up from earliest childhood in a world, and an atmosphere, in which private prayer and public worship were as normal and natural a part of everyday life as eating and sleeping. Faith in Jesus Christ was given to me long before I could understand the words which express our faith: the creed and the other formularies of faith which the Church gives us.
          What a blessing that was! But the Lord gave me more. At age twelve he put into my heart the desire to be a priest. There was no gestation period, no thinking it over, no “discernment.” One day it was not there. The next day it appeared, as a fully formed and settled decision which I never afterward questioned. I told my classmates about it. So from age twelve I have been called Father. As I passed through my teens, I thought, each time I served Mass: “One day I’ll stand there. I’ll say those words. I’ll wear those vestments.”
          It was thirteen years before I could do that. I made the required retreat before ordination, and went to confession. After I had poured out the sorry tale of my sins, the priest, a holy monk, said to me, before giving me absolution: “You’re taking a tremendous gamble, offering yourself to God as a priest. And the Lord is taking an even bigger gamble, accepting you.” That was just over sixty-three years ago. But I’ve never forgotten it. As I look back over those years, I realize that I have failed the Lord times without number. But the Lord has never failed me: not one single day, not one single hour or minute.
          And so I ask you now to do what I have done. Look into your own heart, and look back over your life. Then see if you cannot say the same: “I have failed the Lord time and again. But the Lord has never failed me: not one single day, not one single hour or minute.”
  
Jay Hughes
 

"YOU ARE WITNESSES"


April 20th, 2017: Easter Thursday: Luke 24:35-48.

“You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus tells his first frightened and then incredulous friends at the end of this gospel reading. Those words were not merely a statement. They were a sending, a command. The risen Lord continues to issue this command today – to us.

How do we bear witness to Jesus Christ? There are as many ways as there are witnesses. A few years back our local newspaper had an article about one such witness: Sister Irene Marie of the Little Sisters of the Poor, who take a special vow of “hospitality to the aged poor.” As “collector” for her community, she hits the street daily to collect supplies for their 100-bed home for the elderly. One of her regular stops is the wholesale food market on4.20 Produce Row. A man who sees her there often says: “I guess a polite way to describe Produce Row is ‘tough.’ But Sister Irene just goes right in there and tells those guys what she needs. They’re like little puppies around her.”

What’s her secret? She is careful not to push too hard, the article says. “You can’t expect people to give what they can’t afford,” Sister Irene told the reporter who wrote the article. “If we pushed like that, then God wouldn’t bless our work.”

          She wasn’t always in this line of work. “I was a seamstress in our Cleveland house,” she told the reporter. “One day Mother Superior told me I was going to be the collector.” Wasn’t she worried about taking on something for which she had no experience?  “Not really,” Sister Irene replied. “I’d never sewn before either.” That’s amusing, of course. But the deep and simple faith reflected in that Sister’s words is also uplifting. She is a shining witness to the power, and love, of the risen Lord Jesus.  

Friends, you don’t have to be a religious Sister to be a witness to Jesus Christ. You don’t have to be a priest either. There are people here in this church right now who, like that Sister, are bearing witness to the risen Lord by the inner quality of their lives: women and men of deep faith, steadfast hope even when all looks dark, and active, generous love for God and others.

          Here in the Eucharist we encounter the One who sends us out to be his witnesses in daily life. Here, in word and sacrament, we receive once again all his power, all his goodness, all his purity, all his love. And when we have Him, we have everything.  

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

THE TWO TABLES


April 19th, 2017: Easter Wednesday: The Two Tables.  Luke 24:13-35.
          This best known of all the resurrection stories is also one of the most loved. The story appeals to us because it shows Jesus coming to his friends in the two ways he has always come: through word and sacrament. After Jesus’ disappearance, his two friends recall that their hearts had been “burning within us while he spoke to us ... and opened the Scriptures to us.” More than once the gospels record that “he spoke with authority,” and not like other religious teachers. (Matt. 7:29 and parallels.)
Jesus is still speaking with authority today; and our hearts too can burn within us, as we ponder his word. For that to happen, however, we must spend time alone with the Lord, in silence. The 16th century Spanish Carmelite, St. John of the Cross, says: “The Father spoke one Word, which is his Son, and this word he speaks always in eternal silence; and in silence it must be heard by the soul.”
          Though the two friends of Jesus in today’s gospel feel their hearts burning within them as they listen to the Lord’s words, they recognize him only “in the breaking of the bread” – the first post-Resurrection celebration of Mass.
          Jesus’ swift disappearance at Emmaus shows also that he did not come to these friends of his so that they could luxuriate in a great spiritual experience. He came to empower them to carry the good news of his resurrection to others. Every encounter with God in Scripture is for the sake of others.
          Let me conclude with some verses written as a meditation on the Emmaus story. They are by a monk of the Benedictine abbey in St. Louis, Fr. Ralph Wright.
Sing of one who walks beside us / And this day is living still,
          One who now is closer to us / Than the thought our hearts distill,
          One who once upon a hilltop / Raised against the power of sin,
          Died in love as his own creatures / Crucified their God and King.
 
          Strangers we have walked beside him / The long journey of the day,
          And have told him of the darkness / That has swept our hope away.
          He has offered words of comfort, / Words of energy and light,
          And our hearts have blazed within us / As he saved us from the night.
 
Stay with us, dear Lord, and raise us / Once again the night is near.
Dine with us and share your wisdom. / Free our hearts from every fear.
In the calm of each new evening, / In the freshness of each dawn,
If you hold us fast in friendship / We will never be alone.

Monday, April 17, 2017

"DO NOT CLING TO ME . . ."


April 18th, 2017: Easter Tuesday: John 20:11-18.

          Mary Magdalene “saw Jesus … but did not know it was Jesus,” we just heard in the gospel. That was the experience of almost all those to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection. Why? Jesus had not returned to his former life. He had been raised to a new life, beyond death. His appearance was somehow changed. Mary Magdalene realized it was the Lord standing before her only when he spoke her name. The gospel reading does not tell us how she reacted. We can easily infer this, however, from Jesus’ words: “Do not cling to me! Go to my brothers” with the news that I am risen.

          A young man thinking of priesthood told the priest who was helping him with his vocational decision that he had finally found courage to send in his application for admission to one of the Church’s religious orders for men. A few days after he received word of his acceptance into the novitiate, he was driving down the highway when he thought of a girl he had known. “She’d be the perfect wife for me,” he thought. “Am I crazy, throwing away that chance for happiness?” He got so upset that he prayed: “’Lord, you’re going to have to help me.” Immediately, he said, “the Lord came to me so strongly that the tears ran down my cheeks, and I had to pull off the road.”

          “Johnny,” the priest told him, “the Lord came to you to strengthen your faith and your decision to serve Him as a priest. You must be thankful for that. But don’t try to hold on to that spiritual experience by running the video over again in your head. That is spiritual gluttony.”

          Then the priest told him about Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Lord, and Jesus’ command to her: “Do not cling to me,” but go to my brothers with the news of my resurrection. Every encounter with the Lord is given to us not just for ourselves, the priest told the young man, to give us a nice warm spiritual experience inside. The Lord comes to us to send us to others – his brothers and sisters; yes, and ours too. 

 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

"GO, AND CARRY THE GOOD NEWS"


April 17th, 2017: Easter Monday: Matthew 28:8-15.

          “Do not be afraid!” Jesus says to the women who have just found the tomb empty. “Go and carry the news to my brothers.” The first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection were women. That is significant. In Jesus’ day the testimony of women was considered about as reliable as the testimony of a three-year-old child today. Had the gospel writers made up the story of the empty tomb, it is hardly likely that they would have cited as their primary witnesses people whose testimony had little weight with their contemporaries.

          Jesus’ command to carry the good news of his resurrection to others is important for another reason. The command remains as urgent today as it was on that first Easter morning. Our wonderful Pope Francis never tires of telling us that we are a missionary Church. We “cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings,” he says. “Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but by attraction.” (Evangelii gaudium Nos. 14-15)

          What is it about this first Latin American pope which so impresses people – and not just Catholics? Just about any priest will tell you that from the first days after his election, and continuing today, Catholics and non-Catholics alike come up to us spontaneously to express their admiration for Pope Francis. They perceive at once that he is a man of joy. And joy is contagious.

          If the Church is filled with joy, it will be an evangelizing community. The Church, Pope Francis tells us, “knows how to rejoice always. It celebrates every small victory, every step forward in the work of evangelization. Evangelization with joy becomes beauty in the liturgy. … The Church evangelizes and is herself evangelized through the beauty of the liturgy, which is both a celebration of the task of evangelization and the source of [the Church’s] renewed self-giving.” (op.cit. No. 24)

          Are you filled with that joy? If not, start cultivating prayer of thanksgiving. If a long life has taught me anything, it is this. Grateful people are happy people – no exceptions!