Thursday of the Eighth Week of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

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One of the voices that can never be silenced in us is the voice that cries out seeking to see.  We spend our whole lives crying out as Bartimaeus in today’s Gospel: “Master, I want to see.”  And just as the crowd and even the disciples could not silence his desires, so nothing will silence that desire in our own hearts and souls.  We want to see the truth, we want to see Jesus, we want to see the world as it really is, we want to see our way out of our current messed-up situation, we want to see the end of suffering, we want to see peace, we want to see wholeness, and maybe most of all we want to see ourselves.  As we really are.  As God sees us.  This is our lifelong task.St. Augustine spoke of that very same task in his Confession.  He said, speaking to God: “I will confess, therefore, what I know of myself, and also what I do not know.  The knowledge that I have of myself, I possess because you have enlightened me; while the knowledge of myself that I do not yet possess will not be mine until my darkness shall be made as the noonday sun before your face.”  He goes on to say that he can try to hide from God if he wanted to, but it would never work.  Hiding from God would only result in hiding God from himself.  God sees the depths of our being, so if we try to hide all we really end up doing is running away from God who knows us at our very core.The writer of our first reading had this idea in mind when he said:
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood,
a holy nation, a people of his own,
so that you may announce the praises of him
who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

God is calling us all out of darkness today.  He wants us to see him, and ourselves, as we were created to be.  He wants us to be a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own.  He created us from glory.  And we won’t experience that glory until we go through the rather painful experience of bringing all of our darkness out into the light.  Maybe we’re not ready for that yet.  But we can pray to become ready, and to be open.  We can pray in the words of Bartimaeus: “Master, I want to see!”

The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

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After my first year in seminary, during the summer, I was sent to live for six weeks in Mexico in order to learn Spanish.  I wish that endeavor had been more successful, but I did in fact come away with some experiences that have changed my way of thinking and praying.  The most profound was my realization of how unified we are as Catholics in the Eucharist.  On the very first day I came to Mexico, which was a Sunday, the family I was staying with picked me up at the Spanish school, and before taking me to the house, we went to Sunday Mass at the local Cathedral.  In many ways, it was a “foreign” experience to me: the Church itself was around 500 years old, the oldest Church I’d ever been in.  The Liturgy, of course, was all in Spanish, a language I spoke very little of at the time, having only my high school Spanish to rely on.

But as foreign as the experience was, there was also something very familiar about it.  And if you’ve ever been to Mass in a foreign country, you may well have had the same experience that I did.  Even though I didn’t understand every word, there was still a comfort that I had because the Mass was the same both here and there.  I understood that I was in the Liturgy of the Word when we sat to hear the readings.  I knew that we were in the Eucharistic Prayer at the elevation of the host and cup.  I knew that “Cuerpo de Christo” meant “The Body of Christ” when I went forward to receive Holy Communion.  Even though I didn’t understand every single word, I still felt united with the other worshippers in that Cathedral, because we had all come to the Altar to receive the Body of Christ.

“Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”  That’s what St. Paul tells the Corinthians today, and we are meant to hear it as well.  We are called to unity with one another as we gather around the Altar to partake of the one Body of Christ.  This feast was celebrated on Thursday at the Vatican, and in his homily, Pope Benedict made note of this very important aspect of the Eucharist.  “We feel the truth and the power of the Christian revolution,” he says, “the most profound revolution in human history, which we may experience in the Eucharist where people of different ages, sexes, social conditions and political ideas come together in the presence of the Lord. The Eucharist can never be a private matter. … The Eucharist is public worship, which has nothing esoteric or exclusive about it. … We remain united, over and above our differences, … we [must be] open to one another in order to become a single thing in Him.”

We may try to express our unity in many ways in the Mass.  We might all sing the same songs.  We might all stand or sit together.  We might all join hands at the Lord’s Prayer.  Those are all okay things, but they are not what unites us.  They put us on a somewhat equal footing, but that can happen in all kinds of gatherings.  The one thing that unites us at this gathering, the experience we have here that we don’t have in any other situation, is the Eucharist.  The Eucharist unites us in the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, where all division must necessarily cease.  The Eucharist is the celebration of our unity par excellence.

Having said that, there are obvious ways in which we can notice that we are not, in fact, one.  The Eucharist which is the celebration of our unity can often remind us in a very stark and disheartening way, of the ways that we remain divided with our brothers and sisters in Christ.  The most obvious of these ways is the way that we Catholics remain divided with our Protestant brothers and sisters, and in fact, they with each other as well.  The proliferation of Christian denominations is something we can soft-petal as “different strokes for different folks,” but is in fact a rather sad lament that the Church that Jesus meant to be one is in fact fragmented in ways that it seems can only be overcome by a miracle.  In our Creed we profess a Church that is “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic.”  By “Catholic” here, we may indeed mean “universal” but that does not excuse us from our lack of unity.

Another thing that divides even us Catholics from one another is by sin.  Mortal sin separates us not only from God, not only from those we have wronged, but also from the Church and all of our brothers and sisters in Christ.  When we have sinned greatly, we are not permitted in good conscience to receive the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, because we cannot dare to pretend to be one with those we have separated ourselves from through mortal sin.

This lack of unity expresses itself when all of the guests and family members cannot receive the Eucharist at weddings and funerals.  We see it painfully when we must remain in our pew at Communion time until we have been to Confession.  The lack of unity that we find ourselves in is one that is deeply painful to us, and grievously painful to our Savior who came that we might all be one. 

“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him,” Jesus says to us today.  When we remain in him, we also remain united to one another through Christ.  This is what God wants for his Church, so today we must recommit ourselves to unity, real unity.  So if you have not been to Confession in a while, make it a priority to do that in the next week or so so that you can be one with us at the Table of the Lord.  And at Communion today, we must all make it our prayer that the many things that divide us might soon melt away so that we can all become one in the real way the Jesus meant for us.

"I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give
is my flesh for the life of the world.
"

On this feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, we pray that every person may one day come to share in the flesh of our Savior, given for the life of the world, and we pray that his great desire might come to pass: that we may be one.

The Most Holy Trinity

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What is God like?

rublev_trinity_iconToday’s celebration of the Most Holy Trinity reminds us of the fact that God loved the world he created so much that he was determined to remain in relationship with it.  “God so loved the world,” the Gospel tells us, “that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”  That very familiar quote from John 3:16 has often been described as the entire Gospel all in one verse, because it tells us the reason for Our Savior’s coming, and the purpose for our existence, which is eternal life.

God wishes to remain in relationship with us, his creatures, because God himself is a relationship.  We will never really understand the Trinity in this lifetime, we know that, but we also know that in the Blessed Trinity, our Church has described God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We recall this deepest of our beliefs every time we make the sign of the Cross, every time we receive a blessing, indeed every time the priest greets us at Mass with those familiar words: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you.”  God is a relationship: the Father with the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Son with the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit with the Father and the Son.  Three persons, one God, all in relationship.

But make no mistake, I don’t come before you today to define the Holy Trinity for you as if I’ve figured it all out.  This deepest of our beliefs remains perhaps the deepest of all our mysteries.  A story about St. Augustine tells us as much: The story goes that he was walking along the beach, trying to figure out the nature of the Holy Trinity. As he walked along, he came across a little boy who had dug a hole in the sand right next to the shore. With his little hands he was carrying water from the ocean and was dumping it in the little hole. St. Augustine asked, "What are you doing, my child?" The child replied, "I want to put all of the water of the ocean into this hole." So St. Augustine asked him, "But is it possible for all of the water of this great ocean to be contained in this little hole?" And the child asked him in return, "If the water of the ocean cannot be contained in this little hole, then how can the Infinite Trinitarian God be contained in your mind?"  With that the child disappeared.

But just because the Trinity is a mystery, that doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about it.  In many ways, the mystery of the Trinity is a great blessing.  If we could really figure God out and define God in a neat set of explanations, it would be way to easy for us to simply file God away and never give a second thought.  Because we have to struggle with the mystery of the Trinity, this means we must constantly call God to mind and try to wrap our minds around God in new ways.  I had the great pleasure of preaching about the Trinity to our school children on Friday.  The fourth grade was preparing the Mass, and I asked them to write down questions that they had about God.  I was so deeply touched by the questions they wrote to me, and it was one of the greatest thrills of my priesthood to be able to speak to them about those questions.

The questions they had were wonderful:  Why can’t we see God?  Why did God create the world?  If God created life, then how did God become God?  Why does God love us?  Was God there when Jesus was dying?  Why does God forgive us after we’ve done something wrong?  How do we know the Holy Spirit is with us?  But there was one question that seemed to get to the bottom of it all for me:  What is God like?  And I realized that Adam’s question was where the rubber meets the road in our faith, and that question was the whole reason for celebrating this feast of the Holy Trinity: we have to every day examine what God is like so that we can remain in relationship with our God who is a relationship and who longs to remain in relationship with us.

Again, I’m not going to stand here and tell you the definitive answer to Adam’s question.  And that’s because there really isn’t one definitive answer to what God is like.  We could pass out cards right now and everyone could write down one thing that God is like.  And every one of us would be right in some ways, and every one of us would be wrong in some ways.  We could say that God is love, and we’d be right, but we’re wrong if we think of love in the limited way that we humans can conceive of love.  We could say that God is good, and we’d be right about that, but we’d be wrong if we think of God’s goodness in the way that a candy bar is good or a new car is good or even a new baby is good.  Our limited vocabulary can’t even come close to describing God.  As the song goes, our God is an awesome God, more so than any lyrics or other words could ever describe.

So I want to go back to this idea of God as a relationship.  I do that because it’s one of a million ways I could talk about the Trinity today.  But I do it also because I think that God as a relationship is such a very appealing way to think about God.  We all know how much our good relationships mean to us, and so it is very desirable to think of our relationship with God, and of the relationship that is God. 

Because sometimes we need a parent.  And so relating to God as Father reminds us of the nurturing of our faith, being protected from evil, being encouraged to grow, and being corrected when we stray.  If you’ve had difficulty with a parent in your life, particularly a father, then relating to God as Father can also be difficult.  But still, I think there is part of all of us, no matter what our earthly parents have been like, long to have a loving parental relationship.  God as Father can be that kind of parent in our lives.

And sometimes we need the Son.  Relating to God the Son – Jesus our brother – reminds us that God knows our needs, he knows our temptations, he’s experienced our sorrows and celebrated our joys.  God in Christ has walked our walk and died our death and redeemed all of our failures out of love for us.  God the Son reminds us that God, having created us in his own image and likeness, loves what he created enough to become one of us.  Our bodies are not profane place-holders for our soul, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and that very body was good enough to become the dwelling place of God when he came to earth.  Maybe you’ve never had a brother or sister or never were close to yours, but in Christ you have the brother above all others who is present to you in all your joys and sorrows.

Sometimes, too, we need a Holy Spirit.  Because we often have to be reminded that there is something beyond ourselves.  That this is not as good as it gets.  As wonderful as our world and our bodies can be, we know they are also very flawed.  The Holy Spirit reminds us that there is a part of us that always longs for God, no matter how far we have strayed.  The Spirit reminds us that our sins are not who we are and that repentance and forgiveness are possible.  It is the Holy Spirit that ena
bles us to do the really good things we wouldn’t be capable of all by ourselves, the really good things that are who we really are before God.

Maybe God comes to us as Trinity because one face of God is not sufficient to be God for us creatures who are constantly changing, and constantly struggling.  One day we need the Father, tomorrow we may need the Son and down the road the Holy Spirit.  Whatever we need, the point is that God is there.  Always was, always will be.

So back to Adam’s question:  What is God like?  Well, that’s a reflection I think I’ll leave you all with today.  What is God like?  I hope you struggle with that question your whole life long.  I hope I do too. 

Thursday of the Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

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Sometimes, it seems, we think that God is too big to deal with our paltry little problems.  In thinking that way, though, we make God out to be quite a bit smaller than he really is.  We want to define God, just like Peter did.  We want him to be our Messiah, but the Messiah of our own desires.  Peter couldn’t conceive of a Messiah who would have to suffer.  We can’t conceive of a Messiah who wouldn’t do everything we ever asked him to, who wouldn’t make our life deliriously happy, who wouldn’t make all our problems go away.  Or else we think our Messiah is too busy to even be concerned with our lives.  Either way, we are selling our Messiah way short.

Jesus says our Messiah “must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.”  He will walk through the pain with us, and sometimes that pain will go away, sometimes it won’t, but the pain will never be ignored.  Our God is not too big to note our suffering, and is never too big to walk through it with us.  But he’s not small enough to be our genie in a bottle, waving the magic wand to make us do what he wants.

The Lord hears the cry of the poor, the Psalmist tells us today: “When the poor one called out, the LORD heard, and from all his distress he saved him.”  Our Messiah is a God who hears our cry, and knows our suffering.  We are never alone in our need. 

Tuesday of the Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

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One of the things I sometimes struggle with, and maybe some of you do too, is that I am often tempted to eat the wrong things.  Somehow, if I’m watching TV or something, I get an urge to eat some kind of snack that is not only not very nutritious but also not all that satisfying.  In the vast scheme of culinary delights, Doritos or potato chips of course don’t rank very high, yet somehow I find myself tempted by them all the time!

 

I think there’s a parallel to that in today’s Liturgy of the Word.  Jesus knew the disciples could easily be tempted by the “leaven” of the Pharisees and of Herod.  He meant the paltry doctrine they taught and the less-than-satisfying way of life they offered.  They wanted people to take on a legalistic view of Scripture, living the Torah very literally but not very deeply.  Instead, Jesus offered a much more satisfying bread: a life lived deeply rooted in the Gospel, a life that went beyond legalism in favor of diving head first into compassion, concern for the poor and vulnerable, and love for every person that crosses their paths.

 

The leaven Jesus was talking about had nothing to do with the bread for the journey that they forgot to bring.  Instead, he offered a bread for the journey that was his very body and blood, his own self, giving his life for our salvation.  That kind of bread is the only thing that is ultimately satisfying.  It trumps the bread they forgot to bring, it trumps the so-called leaven of the Pharisees and Herod, it even trumps my Doritos and potato chips.  Don’t settle for junk food that won’t give any nourishment when you can have the Bread of Life.

 

The Solemnity of Pentecost

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tongues-of-fireIn a few moments we will stand together and pray these beautiful words:

We believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.

And we pray those words so often, that they are probably something of second nature to us.  They may even pass right out of our lips without us ever stopping to think about what it really means to believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.  And that’s too bad, because people through the ages have literally suffered and died for these words.  The writing of them into our Profession of Faith was not done without some heated debate and many tears.  These words about the Holy Spirit unfortunately were partly the cause of the split between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox.  And so as we pray them, we need to take special note of them, knowing that it is never the intent of the Holy Spirit that we remain divided and when we pray these words we must remember our brothers and sisters who gave of themselves so that we might have faith.

So, what does it mean to believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life?  The Holy Spirit informs our faith and guides our life, so our belief in that Spirit ought to be evident, it should look like something.  If we really, truly believe in the Holy Spirit, our lives should be a certain way, and I think our readings today give us some attributes of the Spirit-led life.

In our first reading, the disciples receive the Holy Spirit in a very public setting.  They were all in one place together, and the Spirit descended upon them with a strong, driving wind and tongues of fire.  This Holy Spirit enabled them to proclaim the Good News in the various tongues of the then-known world.  Every foreign person in Rome was able to hear the Word in his or her own language.  Now being a person who has very little facility for foreign languages, this would be my dream gift of the Spirit!  I know un pocito of Spanish, and most days struggle a bit with English!  But here the disciples are able to speak in all the languages of the world, enabling the Word to be heard by people of every nation.

Whether language is our gift or not, we too are filled with the Spirit and sent forth to preach to all nations.  That the Word was heard by people of every nation in their own tongue was evidence of the fact that Jesus was quite serious when he commanded the apostles to go forth and make disciples of all nations.  God really does want the Word to be known by every person everywhere, and he expects us to preach it.  Maybe we will be sent off in mission to speak to people in their own language.  Or maybe we’ll have to put the Word out there in a way that people in our own time and place can understand.  We’re in a culture that very rarely if ever speaks the word of God, and it’s evident that so many people have lost the ability to relate to God.  It’s up to us to make the Gospel known to them by preaching it with our lives.  As St. Francis said, “Preach the Gospel always.  If necessary, use words.”  People will come to know the Gospel as they see us living it.  Love is a universal language.  Joy is evidence of the presence of God.  People can relate to love and joy and peace and grace and kindness and compassion.  All we have to do is to live that way, and people will come to know the Lord.  The Holy Spirit gives us the ability to preach the Word to people of every nation and tongue.

In the second reading, St. Paul preaches to the Corinthians that people of the Spirit can do everything.  “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit;” he says, “there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.”  Now, I admit, some days we all get out of bed thinking there’s no way we can do anything really good.  Some days just breathing seems to be a major accomplishment.  So the ability to do everything is something that for most of us – me included! – seems so far out of our grasp.

But we don’t have to be the one person who does everything.  We are all united in the Spirit, and together we can do everything.  We all have some gifts.  We have celebrated those gifts this year as our parish has focused on stewardship as our theme.  And as St. Paul tells us, the gifts of the Spirit are never given just for us.  We are meant to use them for the good of others and the glory of God:  “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.”  The Holy Spirit gives us the ability to do everything, when we share the gifts we have been given in concert with all of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

And finally, in the Gospel, Jesus forgives his apostles and calls on them to forgive others.  Now we’re getting to the end of the Gospel of John, a Gospel that has been a kind of mirror of the book of Genesis.  Both the book of Genesis and the Gospel of John begin with the words, “In the beginning…”  And that’s not an accident.  John is doing that for the very specific reason of showing us how God is re-creating the world.  Just as the book of Genesis showed the first creation of the world, so the Gospel shows us the re-creation of the world in Christ.  If the Gospels show us anything, they show us how we need to be re-created.

The apostles were gathered on that first day of the week, the day of creation, but also the day of the Resurrection.  They are afraid, the Gospel says today, “for fear of the Jews.”  They knew that what happened to Jesus could certainly happen to them.  But there’s more to it than that.  Jesus has risen now, and they know that.  Gathered together, they are a group ashamed of the way they treated Christ on his last day.  They let him down by denying him and running away.  They had sinned, and their sin filled them with shame and fear.  The were hiding behind locked doors.  They needed to be re-created.

They needed to be re-created just as much as all of us need to be re-created when we sin.  When we treat others poorly, or withhold compassion, or don’t forgive, or let our relationships deteriorate into sin, when we spend too much time on the internet looking at the wrong things, or cheat on a business deal or in school, when we waste the gifts of the earth or any of many other ways we can go wrong, when we do any of these things, we need to be re-created.  We too can find ourselves behind locked doors, afraid of what will happen to us and ashamed of the way we have treated God, ourselves, and others.  We need to be re-created almost every day, don’t we?

But just as Jesus could break through the locked doors that kept the apostles cooped up, so he can break through our own locked doors.  And what he said to them then is what he says to us now:  “Peace be with you.”  That isn’t a fluffy, kumbaya kind of peace, but a peace that re-creates us from the inside out.  It’s a peace that wipes away our sins and gives us a second chance. 
Or even a third or fourth or nine thousandth chance.  “Peace be with you.”  We receive this same kind of peace in Confession when the priest says to us in the prayer of absolution: “Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace…” 

But having been forgiven, the apostles then and us now are told that that peace is something that has to be spread around.  We forgiven, re-created children of God must now reach out to others and invite them to experience that same peace.  “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,” Jesus says, “and whose sins you retain are retained.”  The cost of retaining any sin is disastrous.  In terms of the Church, the only sins that are really retained are those that are unconfessed and unrepented.  There is no peace possible when that happens.  But we can sinfully retain others’ sins when we refuse to forgive them, when we bind them up with stereotyping, discrimination and hate.  This is not the way that has been laid out for us.  This is not the example we have received.  We have received peace, and we are commanded to give peace in return.  We must be a people who forgive because we are a people who have been forgiven and at a great cost.  The Holy Spirit gives us the ability to be forgiven and to forgive.

And so, we who believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, are a people who are enabled to proclaim the Word to every person in our words and deeds, a people who can do everything as we use our gifts in communion with our brothers and sisters, a people who can forgive as we have been forgiven.  We could never do any of this on our own, of course.  It takes the Holy Spirit alive in us and in our world to make all things new.  And so every day we pray with the Psalmist: “Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.”