The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today's readings | Today's feast

This feast is one of the reasons I love the Blessed Virgin. Having given her fiat – her "yes" – to God, she now shows concern for her elder relative who is also with child. She goes to visit her in a great act of hospitality, which is one of the virtues Paul admonished the Romans to follow in our first reading today. Perhaps because of her faith and her great concern for Elizabeth, Elizabeth's own child begins to rejoice in the womb, recognizing his Lord and the great woman who would bring him to human life.

While we don't have an exact account of what happened at that visit, we do have the Church's recollection of its spirit, as told through Luke the Evangelist. The whole feeling of this Gospel story is one of great joy. Both Elizabeth and Mary represent the Church in the telling of the story. Because just as Elizabeth was moved by the faith and generosity of Mary, so the Church continues to be edified by her example of faith and charity. And just as Mary rejoiced in what God was doing in her life, so the Church continues to rejoice at the mighty acts of God in every person, time and place.

The Gospel reading ends with the great song called the Magnificat which is Mary's song of praise to God for the wonders he has done throughout all time, but also in her own life. We too should make that our own song as we continue to be overjoyed by the great acts of God, shepherding us all through our own lives, and intervening in our world and society to bring grace to a world darkened by sin. We, too, can pray with Mary, "From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name."

Memorial Day

Today's readings: Philippians 4:6-9 & John 14:23-29

memorialdayMemorial Day originally began in our country as an occasion to remember and decorate the graves of the soldiers who died in the Civil War. Later it became a holiday to commemorate all those who had died in war in the service of our country. This continues to be the main focus of Memorial Day but this day has also become a time to remember not just those who died in war, but also all of our loved ones who have died. It is above all a time to remember.

As a people, we tend to look for heroes in our lives. Our society gives us all kinds of heroes, most of them really pretty unworthy of the title. How many sports heroes have also been drug users? How many political heroes have also turned out to be corrupt? How many entertainment heroes have found their way into drug or alcohol abuse or have turned out to be flawed in other ways? We are all of us both saints and sinners. We are works in progress hoping for true redemption in Christ. We should therefore look up to those heroes in our lives who have been people of faith, even if they have been flawed in other ways.

And so we remember today those who have been believers, those who loved God and, as Jesus commanded in today's Gospel, have kept his word. These are the heroes we would do well to pattern our lives after, as St. Paul says in today's first reading: "Finally, brothers [and sisters], whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you."

Those who have been part of our lives, and the life of our country, who have been people of faith and integrity are the heroes that God has given us. If we would honor them on this Memorial Day, we should believe as they have believed, we should live as they have lived, and we should rejoice that their memory points us to our Savior, Jesus Christ, who is our hope of eternal life.

The Solemnity of Pentecost

Today’s readings

pentecostThere’s an old prayer that I wonder if people even know any more. I learned it when I was in eighth grade, preparing for my Confirmation. It goes like this (and please pray along with me if you know it):

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful;
Enkindle in them the fire of your love.
Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created,
And you shall renew the face of the earth.

This is a prayer that I pray every day, and I hope you’ll come to learn it too, if you don’t already know it. Because we are a people desperately in need of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

The Apostles were just like us in that regard. They too were in need of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. They didn’t know what they were waiting for, but they knew they were waiting for something, because Jesus told them to wait in the city until they would be clothed with power from on high. That was the message that he gave them as he ascended into heaven. And so they gathered together in those days after Jesus died and rose and ascended and they waited for that power from on high. They waited because they were powerless without Jesus. They waited because they didn’t know what else to do. And they were rewarded for their expectant waiting.

We too are waiting. Which doesn’t mean that we’re just sitting around waiting for something to happen. We are waiting, like the Apostles, with great expectation. All the earth is waiting. Whenever we pause to catch a breath, we can feel that waiting, that expectation, a groaning for God to do a God-thing. We wait for an end to war and all the world’s miseries; we wait for healing of our church’s brokenness; we wait for unity in our families’ divisions, an end to nature’s devastation, and we wait for ourselves to reach the goal of our lives’ search for meaning. We are waiting, and with the Apostles, we pray longingly, “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful…”

One of the ways to look at the Holy Trinity is that the Father is the Lover, the Son is the Beloved, and the Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son. Since God is love, this caricature of the Trinity makes some sense, even though it just begins to scratch the surface of who God is. So the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles at that first Pentecost, which is the same Spirit that abides in the Church today and is poured out on all baptized believers, this continual outpouring of the Holy Spirit was always intended by God because it is a sacrament of God’s love for us.

The love of God through the Spirit enabled those first believers to boldly proclaim the marvelous deeds of God, and enabled all of their hearers to understand them in their own language. Love is that universal language that we all recognize because it is the language of the One who created us, so it is no wonder that everyone understood them. We too speak with that same language when we reach out to our brothers and sisters who are lonely, or hurting, or impoverished, or marginalized or just plain forgotten. If all the world is to come to know the Gospel and its Author, Jesus Christ, then we have to proclaim that Gospel in beautiful acts of love for every person God puts in our path. Then just as those who spoke different languages understood the Apostles’ preaching, all this modern world – which does not speak the language of faith – will come to know and understand our words and actions through love. We cry out with every breath to our God, “Enkindle in us the fire of your love!”

God created all of the world good, because it was a creation of his love for us. We’ve all heard the great Genesis story of the creation of the world. God breathed the world and all its wonders into existence, most especially the greatest of his creations, humankind. That creation, though, was never complete until the coming of the Holy Spirit. The great Paschal Mystery of Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension all were necessary so that, having returned to the Father, the Son could send the Holy Spirit, that One who is the love among the Trinity, to the earth so that all the earth could be God’s new creation. The Apostles were witnesses to that new creation.

Because creation didn’t stop in Genesis. New life is being born into existence in every single moment. Right now, somewhere, a baby cries as it takes its first breath. Right now, somewhere, a tiny sprout of green herbage pokes its head through the soil on its way to becoming a huge tree. Right now, somewhere, the Holy Spirit is working on someone’s heart, tugging at them to become what they have been created for. And we are witnesses to that new creation. We pray with the Apostles, “Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created!”

But what makes the need for the Holy Spirit so evident in our world, though, is the many ways that we are all bruised and broken. Throughout history, humankind had turned away from God, time and time again. Every action of God was meant to intervene and turn us back to him. But it never came to pass fully until he sent his only Son to be our Redeemer. The apostles who gathered in that room, waiting for the power from on high, knew our Redeemer personally. They were longing for the renewal of their own nation, not fully knowing God’s plans for them.

auschwitzrebirthBut that need for renewal never went away, and we have seen death and pain and brokenness all around us. One of our young people this week showed me a picture of the concentration camp at Auschwitz. The camp had been devoid of vegetation during its heyday, for want of a better term. But the picture she showed me had green plants poking up right next to the horrible buildings put there by the Nazis. Her chaplain commented that that was a sign of the earth trying to heal itself. And through the action of the Holy Spirit, we can see creation in so many ways trying to heal itself. Right here, there are people trying to turn away from addictions or patterns of sin. Right now, we have parishioners and friends in the hospital recovering from injury or illness. Right now, there are people among us working to restore broken relationships. The earth and all of creation are devastated at times, but the Holy Spirit never tires of renewing it. We too can pray, “Renew the face of the earth!”

Today’s second reading makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is active in all of us, each in different ways. There are different spiritual gifts, different forms of service, different ministries, different workings. But there is one and the same God who works to produce all of them in everyone, through the Holy Spirit. That Spirit fills our hearts and sets them on fire with the love of God. That same spirit makes us into God’s new creation and renews each of us in God’s image every day. We indeed are a people constantly in need of the love and grace of the Holy Spirit, and we should pray every day,

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful;
Enkindle in them the fire of your love.
Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created,
And you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.

Friday of the Seventh Week of Easter

Today’s readings

Jesus’ words to Peter in this Gospel reading are a mixture of comfort, challenge, and warning. Peter, who had messed up in his relationship with Jesus time and time again, had just messed up in the worst way possible by denying his friend not once but three times. But then comes the question not once but three times: “Peter, do you love me?” This is comfort because with each asking, Jesus is healing Peter from the inside out.

Then words of challenge: “Feed my sheep.” Grace is never just for us. When we are forgiven or graced in any way, we, like Peter, are then challenged to do something about it. Feed my sheep, follow me, give me your life, come to know my grace in a deeper way.

And then words of warning: “when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” When we give ourselves over to God, that necessarily means that we might have to go in a direction we might not otherwise choose.

But then Jesus brings Peter back to comfort and healing once again by saying “Follow me.” No matter what we disciples have done in our past, no matter how many times we have messed up or in what ways, there is always forgiveness if we give ourselves over to our Savior and our friend. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences or that life will be easy. We too may be challenged and hear words of warning. But we will never stop hearing the invitation, “Follow me.”

Thursday of the Seventh Week of Easter

Today's readings

Today's Liturgy of the Word assures us that the establishment of the Church was not some kind of made-up aberration on the part of the followers of Jesus. In the first reading, Paul who is now doing battle for his life against the Pharisees and Sadducees, is told by the Lord that just as he has borne witness to Christ in Jerusalem, he must now do so in Rome. And he will do that by giving witness to his actions. This will lead to his death, but certainly his witness contributed to the establishment of the Church in that great city.

We are still hearing Jesus' prayer in the last hours of his life. Speaking to his Father, he prays not just for the disciples who have been part of his life, but also for all those who will believe in Jesus through their word. Sitting here at this Liturgy, we have to know that we are among those Jesus was praying for in those last moments. And the Father, who certainly would answer the prayers of his only Son, granted that the Church would be the steward of the great mysteries of Redemption.

These early clues of the Church that we hear about in today's readings were nurtured by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, which we will celebrate in just a few days. What we should hear in today's Scriptures is that God always intended us to be one with him, or Jesus would never have prayed for that. And God always intended that the Church would be the institution to bring His creation back to Himself.

Tuesday of the Seventh Week of Easter

Today's readings

Today's Liturgy of the Word represents a kind of wrap-up to the lives of St. Paul and Jesus, respectively. They both have completed the mission for which they had been sent, and both are now giving the mission back to God who would continue it as He alone saw fit. Paul's mission had been one of conversion, beginning with his own, and then reaching out to the Gentiles he met traveling far and wide. Now he did not know what would happen to him, only that the Holy Spirit kept telling him it was to be an end filled with hardship, from which Paul refused to shrink.

Jesus, one with the Father from the beginning, had come from the Father and was now going back to the Father. He brought God's love to bear on the aberrations of sin and death and had drawn disciples into the mission to continue the work. It could not continue unless he returned to the Father and sent the Holy Spirit upon them. Doing that has brought the Gospel into every nation and into the lives of millions. He too faced an end filled with hardship, from which he refused to shrink.

We disciples will come to our own ends as well. Will we too be able to give the mission back to the Father, confident that we've done it as best we could, and confident that it would be continued as God saw fit? Have our days sometimes been filled with hardship, and if so, have we also refused to shrink from it? We disciples are part of the mission that God has in the world. We take it for a time and will eventually have to hand it back over. May we all be able to do so with confidence that God's will has been done in us.

The Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord

Today's readings

ascensionOne of the great themes of Catholic theology is the "already, and not yet." Basically, that means that we disciples of Christ already have a share in the life of God and the promise of heaven, but we are not yet there. So we who believe in Jesus and live our faith every day have the hope of heaven before us, even if we are not home yet. And this hope isn't just some "iffy" kind of thing: it's not "I hope I'll go to heaven one day." No, it's the promise that because of the salvation we have in Christ, we who are faithful will one day live and reign with him. This gives us hope in the midst of the sorrows that we experience in this world.

Another great theme of Catholic theology is that our God is transcendent, but also immanent. Transcendent means that our God is higher than the heavens, more lofty than our thoughts and dreams, beyond anything we can imagine. Whatever we say about God, like "God is love" or "God is good" – those things only begin to scratch the surface of who God is, because God is transcendent beyond anything our limited words can describe. But our God is also immanent. God is not some far off entity that has brought the world into existence and set the events of our lives in motion and then drops back to observe things from afar. No, our God is one who walks among us and knows our sorrow and our pain and celebrates our joy. Saint Augustine said that God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. Our God may indeed be mysterious and beyond us, but he is also the one we can reach out and touch.

As you can see, Catholic theology is generally speaking not exclusive. We are not either already sharing in the promise or not yet sharing in it, but we are "already and not yet." Our God is not either transcendent or immanent, but both transcendent and immanent. These two great theological themes come to a kind of crossroads here on this feast of the Ascension.

Today, as Christ ascends into heaven, our share in the life of God and the promise of heaven is sealed. We have hope of eternal life because our Lord has gone before us to prepare a place for us. If he had not gone, we could never have shared in this life. So, although Jesus has left the apostles yet again, they can rejoice because they know that the promise is coming to fulfillment. We do not possess it yet, because we are not home yet, but we share in it already, because Christ is our promise.

Today, as Christ ascends into heaven, he once again, with the Father, is transcendent, because we, along with the Apostles, can no longer see him. But he remains immanent by his promise to be with us always. Again, I will quote St. Augustine who said of Christ that "He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven. The fact that he was in haven even while he was on earth is borne out by his own statement: No one has ever ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven." St. Augustine's notion of time is that everything is present to God all at once. This explains how our celebration of the Eucharist in a few minutes brings us to Calvary at the moment when Jesus gave his life for us. And it explains how Jesus can ascend into heaven and yet remain among us. Time is a limitation for us humans, but not for God who created time in the first place.

All of this theology can be heady stuff, but what it boils down to is this: because Jesus died, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, we now have the hope of heaven and of sharing in the very life of God. Even though we do not possess heaven yet, we know that it belongs to all who have faith in Christ and live that faith every day. And even though we do not see Jesus walking among us, he is still absolutely present among us and promises to be with us forever. The preface to the Eucharistic prayer which I will sing in a few minutes makes this very clear; it says:

Christ, the mediator between God and humanity,
judge of the world and Lord of all,
has passed beyond our sight,
not to abandon us but to be our hope.
Christ is the beginning, the head of the Church;
where he has gone, we hope to follow.

Jesus, having explained the Scriptures to his Apostles yet again, tells them "You are witnesses of these things." And so they don't have the luxury of just standing there, staring up into the sky for hours, dejected and crushed because the One who had been their hope had disappeared. No, as the Gospel tells us today, they "returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God." They are witnesses, "clothed with power from on high," and they must be filled with the hope and joy of the resurrection and ascension of the Lord.

We disciples are witnesses of these things too. We must witness to a world filled with violence and oppression and sadness that our God promises life without end for all those who believe in him. And we have that hope already, even though not yet. We must witness to a world languishing in the vapidity of relativism and individualism and New Age Oprah and Dr. Phil philosophy that it is Jesus Christ, the Lord of All, who is one with us in heaven, and present among us on earth, who fulfills our hopes and longings and will never leave us. We must be witnesses to all these things, living with great joy, continually praising God because, as our opening prayer said so eloquently, Christ's "ascension is our glory and our hope."