Sixth Sunday of Easter [A]

Today’s readings

I have been wanting to preach about hope for a while now.  There are a couple of reasons for that.  First, I don’t think we know what hope is, or at least, I don’t think we think much about what hope is.  The world, our society, gives us an idea of what hope is, and of course, it’s not the right idea, not the complete idea.  And second, I think there is a general lack of hope in the world right now: I think this world could use some hope, and the ironic thing is that it’s there for the taking, if we know what it is and where to look.  So it’s fortunate that our scriptures today give us a look at hope, and tell us where we can find it and what we must do with it.

So the dictionary defines “hope” as “the feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best.”  And I think that’s a good place to start.  When we commonly refer to “hope,” we usually mean something like: “I hope it will be sunny today” or “I hope I get that promotion I applied for.”  When we say those things, there’s often a certain tone of uncertainty, which implies that the hope isn’t real hope, or that there’s no hope, but we’re just waiting for a lucky break.

Real hope doesn’t have that sort of uncertainty.  Real hope means that we want something, and we know it can be attained or realized.  It means that we know there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and no, it’s not the headlight of an oncoming train!  Real hope implies a sense of certainty, even amidst seemingly overwhelming odds.

And so, I think a lot of people might agree that we don’t have much hope in the world today.  Just tune in to the news to see that in action: wars, skirmishes and unrest in many parts of the world; bizarre weather and killer tornadoes in many places of our country this spring; cataclysmic natural disasters over the past few years that have left whole countries reeling.  Closer to home, we could cite high unemployment, rising prices on everything from gas to food, foreclosures on homes and failures of businesses, and so much more.  It doesn’t take much looking around to feel like there’s no hope of hope anywhere.

So the problem, I think, is in what or where that we place our hope.  Often we place our hope in ourselves or our own efforts, only to find ourselves at some point over our heads.  Or maybe we place our hope in other people in our lives, only at some point to be disappointed.  We sometimes place our hope in Oprah or Doctor Phil or their ilk, only to find out that their pep-talks at some point ring hollow and their philosophies are shallow.  You can’t find much hope in sources like these, or if you do, you might find that hope to be short-lived.

I think you know where I’m going to say we ought to put our hope.  Obviously, we have to hope in God, because the hope that he brings is an immovable rock that isn’t subject to the failures of human flesh and human reason.  What God teaches us in Christ provides a hope that cannot be overcome by changing fads and a desire for better television ratings.  If we want real hope, the only place we need to look, the only one we should look to, is God.

Now, I say this, knowing full well that some of you have prayed over and over and over for something to change, only to be disappointed after you say “Amen.”  And there’s no way I’m going to tell you that all you have to do is pray and everything will work out all right.  God doesn’t promise us perfect happiness in this life, and so often we are going to go through periods of sorrow and disappointment.  That’s the unfortunate news of life in this passing world.  The sorrow and disappointment are not God’s will for us, they are by-products of sin – our own sin or the sin of others – and those things grieve God very much.

But even in those times of grief, God still gives us hope, if we turn to him.  The hope that he offers is the knowledge that no matter how bad things get, we don’t go through them alone, that God is there for us, walking with us through the sorrow and pain and never giving up on us.

Some of my friends are going through vocational issues or other dark times in their lives right now.  Recently, they told me about the hope that they find in their relationship with God, and that’s a hope that inspires me.  The hope that we Christians have is based on our faith in God and his undying love for us.  This is a hope that can never die, a hope that provides a light in the darkest times of our lives.

As I mentioned, today’s readings give us a foundation for this hope.  In the second reading, Peter awakens our hope of forgiveness.  He says, “For Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God.  Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the Spirit.”  Even our sinfulness is no match for God’s mercy.  Because of Christ’s death and resurrection we have hope of eternal life in God’s kingdom.  Because God loved us so much, he gave his only Son for our salvation, and now we have hope of forgiveness, hope for God’s presence in our lives.

In the Gospel, Jesus tells us that we can hope in him because we will always have his presence.  Even though he ascended to the right hand of the Father, as we’ll celebrate next week, he is with us always.  “And I will ask the Father,” he says, “and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth…”  We receive that Holy Spirit sacramentally in Baptism and Confirmation, and we live in his Spirit every day.  The presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives gives us the hope that we are never alone, even in our darkest hours; that the Spirit intercedes for us and guides us through life.

We disciples have to be convinced of that hope; we have to take comfort in the hope that never passes from us, in the abiding presence of God who wants nothing more than to be with us.  We have to reflect that hope into our sometimes hopeless world.  As our second reading reminds us, “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.  Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope…” The reason for our hope is Christ.  We find our hope in the cross and resurrection.  We experience our hope in the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.  We spread that hope in our hopeless world by being Christ to others, living as disciples of Jesus when the whole world would rather drag us down.  Even when life is difficult, we can live with a certain sense of joy, because above all, we are disciples of hope.

 

School Graduation

Readings: Deuteronomy 31:1-8Psalm 145 – 1 Timothy 4:12-16Matthew 5:13-16

My dear graduates, you are gathered here for the last time as a class.  This has been the home away from home, for many of you, for the last nine or ten years; you have known each other and grown together; you have formed relationships that have seen you through good times and bad.  And so, as we come together for graduation this evening, I know that this is a bittersweet occasion for you, as it is for your teachers and all who have been privileged to be part of your life these past years.  You are certainly excited to graduate and move on with the rest of your life, but you are certainly also sad to leave behind so many close friends as you go to different schools in the year ahead.

But however we all feel about you moving on, move on you must.  That is what life is all about: growing and learning and becoming and going forward.  We all want that for you, and hopefully that is what you want for yourselves. And so, on this occasion, I have been trying to figure out what words I would want you to hear on this day.  As I have prayed about this homily, the Spirit seems to be wanting me to talk to you about success.  Success is that pot of gold that we all want for ourselves, and many people have written about it.

Dale Carnegie wrote, “The person who gets the farthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare. The sure-thing boat never gets far from shore.”  Woody Allen once said, “Seventy percent of success in life is showing up.”  Johann Sebastian Bach wrote, “I was made to work. If you are equally industrious, you will be equally successful.”  I could go on and on quoting all sorts of famous people who have given their opinion on how to be successful, but I thought I might stop there and instead focus on some common advice about success that you usually hear at graduations.

One thing you often hear is “Anything’s possible.”  I think that’s more or less true, but that also doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good news.  God only knows what’s ahead for each of you: some of it will be incredibly excellent – the stuff far beyond your wildest dreams.  Those moments are God’s gift to you.  Some of it may also be disappointing, frustrating or even sad.  But whether the future brings joy or sadness, what is truly important is what you do with it.  If God gives you joy, your task is to share it – because no gift is ever given just for ourselves.  And if life brings you pain on occasion, the task is to get through it as best you can, knowing that you are never alone: God is with you all the way.

Another piece of advice you might hear at graduation is “Believe in yourself.”  That’s nice advice as far as it goes.  Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t go very far.  If all you believe in is yourself, what do you do when you don’t know what to do?  Who do you turn to?  What happens when you mess up?  I think far better advice is what you’ve been taught for all these years here at Notre Dame School: believe in Jesus.  Jesus loves you, Jesus knows what it’s like to live our human life – he knew joy and he knew sorrow and he got through it all.  If you believe in Jesus, you’ll always have a deep well of grace to draw from when you are tested, you’ll always be able to discern the right path, and you’ll be known as a person who is steadfast and courageous, not blown around by whatever fad comes along next.  Jesus is your Lord and Jesus is your friend.  He has known you and loved you before you were you, and he will keep on loving you no matter where life takes you.

Sometimes at graduations, you’ll hear “There’s nothing you can’t achieve.”  I don’t personally think that’s true.  There are lots of things we aren’t made to do, and I think we instead have to figure out what it was we were made to do.  God has an important task for each of us to accomplish, and it’s up to achieve that.  That is our vocation.  That means we have to pray about what that is, to look for God’s will in our lives.  I can tell you from personal experience, that if you do what God wants you to do in your life, you’ll be successful, and more than that, you’ll be happy every day of your life.  It took me a while to figure that out, but it was worth it.

All in all, I think the best advice there is comes from a very reliable source.  That source is Jesus in this evening’s Gospel reading.  Jesus says that successful disciples have to be salt and light.  We are called to season the world with the love and grace that Jesus has taught us.  We are called to shine the light of God’s presence on a world that can sometimes be a dark place.  Disciples make the world a better place, and through these years of Catholic education, you have learned how to do that.  Now as you go forth into the rest of your life, you are called to put what you have learned into practice.

Sometimes putting what we have learned into practice can be difficult.  Jesus certainly lived what he taught us, and it was difficult for him too.  For him, being salt and light led him to the cross, where he paid the price for our sins.  He did that because he loves us unconditionally and sacrificially.  That kind of love gives us the possibility of eternal life one day in God’s heavenly kingdom.  God loved us so much that he couldn’t bear the thought of living forever without us, so he sent his Son to become one of us and pay the price for our many sins, and to destroy the power that sin and death had over us.

That’s what success looks like for us believers in Christ.  It looks like love beyond our wildest dreams.  It looks like giving everything, trusting all the while that God will give us what we need in return.  That’s how Jesus loves us, and that’s how we’re supposed to love one another too.  We are probably not going to get nailed to a cross, but we are definitely called upon to give of ourselves, to lay down our lives for each other.  That is how we can be salt and light in this world.

For all these years of Catholic school, you’ve been hearing that message.  If you remember it, I think you will be successful in this life and in the life to come.  The goal of all our lives is to get to heaven one day, and for the time you’ve been in our Catholic school, everyone has done their best to give you what you need to get there.  And, as the writer of our first reading from Deuteronomy promises, you need not be afraid of what it takes to be successful because “It is the LORD who marches before you; he will be with you and will never fail or forsake you.  So do not fear or be dismayed.”

 

Monday of the Fifth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

Today’s readings are a reminder that we disciples have to be discerning.  It is important for us to discern what the truth is so that we can be led to the one who is Truth itself.  The Gentiles, who worshiped idols, didn’t have the context of monotheism – that there is one God – to help them.  Paul and Barnabbas did their best to catechize them, but there was much work to be done to overcome something that had been for the Greeks so culturally ingrained.  The Gentiles didn’t have a context of God working through human beings, so they naturally mistook Paul and Barnabas for gods.

And in today’s Gospel, Jesus spells out how one can discern who is a true disciple.  The true disciple, claiming that he or she loves God, will be one who keeps God’s commandments.  If the disciple truly loves God, keeping God’s commandments would be second nature for that person.  But if one were to see someone claiming to love God and be his disciple but not obeying God’s commandments, one could conclude that person is not a true disciple.

Discernment is important for us, because we want authenticity in our worship and in our belief and understanding.  Discernment is a gift of the Holy Spirit.  We cultivate that gift by prayer and study of the Holy Scriptures.  That is how we come to know the One who is Truth itself, how we will be filled with the Holy Spirit and come to know the truth.

 

The Fifth Sunday of Easter [A]

Today’s readings

I can see by your attendance here today that you were not caught up in the rapture last night.

I bring this up not so much to poke fun at those who mistakenly predict the end of days, but rather to use this occasion to talk about exactly what we Catholics believe about the end times.  I think at some level all of us want to know when the end is coming and what it will look like.  We don’t get a clear roadmap of that, for reasons I’ll discuss later, but we do have some theology around the issue.

Whenever we want to know what we believe about something, the first places we should look are in the scriptures and in the Liturgy.  So I’ll start with the Liturgy, and point out the scriptures along the way.  The Nicene-Constantinople Creed, which we pray each Sunday and Solemnity, includes two statements of belief about the end of time.  The first comes at the end of what we believe about Jesus Christ.  It says:

He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.

The second statement comes at the very end of the Creed, in the part that summarizes our belief about the Church, the sacraments and eternal life:

… and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come.

So the Creed gives us five pieces of information about the end times.  First, Jesus will come again in glory.  In our Gospel today, Jesus tells us: “I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be…”  In his glorious return, Jesus will make manifest his kingdom in heaven and on earth, and all those who have believed in him will be taken to himself.

Second, Jesus will judge the living and the dead.  Recall the scripture about the sheep and the goats, Matthew 25:31-46, in which those who have ministered to Christ made manifest in the poor and lowly of the world will inherit eternal life, and those who have failed to do so inherit eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  We believe that it is our responsibility to live the Gospel and a failure to do so manifests a rejection of Christ that is a choice to live in torment, distanced from God in eternity just as was done in life.

Third, we believe that when Christ returns, his kingdom will be everlasting.  The devil may well appear to hold sway in our own time, and all it takes is a glance at the news to confirm this.  But when Christ returns, all will be made new, as we read in the book of Revelation, chapter 21 (1-4): “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband…”

Fourth, there will be a resurrection of the dead.  We believe that because of the death and resurrection of Christ, death is not the end for us.  Those who die before Christ returns will be raised up to participate in the new, everlasting kingdom.  Saint Paul tells us in his first letter to the Thessalonians (4:13-14), “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.  For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”

And finally, we believe in eternal life.  In today’s gospel, Jesus says: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?”  So we know that heaven is a place where we are to go, once we have been purified by death, and possibly purgatory (but that’s another whole homily!).  Eternal life is a life of joy in heaven forever.

Getting back to the news of the last few days, in which Harold Camping of FamilyRadio.com predicted a rapture and the beginning of the end yesterday at 6pm local time, I would like to say two things.  First, you’ll notice that I didn’t discuss in the five points I just made a belief in the rapture.  That’s because there isn’t such a thing.  Those who believe in a rapture claim that prior to the great tribulations which will precede the end times, those who have believed in Christ will be taken up, leaving everyone else “left behind.”  That belief led to a whole series of popular books in the last decade.  While the tribulations that precede the end were foretold by Jesus, a rapture was not.  It wasn’t until the 1800s that some American fundamentalists really defined and pushed that belief.  The Catholic Church has never acknowledged a rapture, it has never been revealed in Scripture or authentic Tradition, so we can dismiss it.

Second, a lot of people waste a lot of time trying to calculate the end of it all.  Mr. Camping calculated that May 21st would be the end.  I won’t get into how he got there, because I think the failure of it dictates that it not be given much attention, and if you really want to know, there’s a lot on the internet you can find about that.  I will say that he previously predicted that the end would come in 1994, based on the same information, and claimed it didn’t come to pass due to a mathematical error on his part.

What I have to say about this is based on what Jesus tells us in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 24, verse 36: “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.”  I think that’s pretty clear: nobody gets that big picture except God the Father, so it’s extremely presumptuous to think we could ever figure it out.  Shame on us if we waste our time trying.

So what do we do with all this?  Should we be prepared for the end of the world?  I would say absolutely yes, and always.  Going back to First Thessalonians (5:2), Saint Paul tells us, “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night.”  Since we don’t know when the end will come, but are positive that there will indeed be an end, we need to be always prepared.  That preparation should be that we continue to nurture our relationship with God by participating regularly in the sacraments, and immersing ourselves in prayer and reading of the sacred scriptures.  It also includes living the Gospel: finding Christ in the poor and needy and extending ourselves to lighten their load.  It means proclaiming the word by the lives that we lead and the words that we speak.  It means bringing everyone we can find with us to the kingdom.

There’s a lot at stake in our Scriptures today.  There is a world that needs to know Jesus so that they too can know the Father and experience the joy of a real home.  There is a world that needs to know the touch of Jesus so that they can be healed and strengthened for life’s journey.  There is a world that needs to hear the Word of Jesus so that they can come to the way, the truth and the life.  It’s on us now, none of us can be passive observers or consumers only.  As St. Peter says today, we “are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that [we] may announce the praises’ of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light.”  We are not home yet, but we can get there through our Jesus, our way, our truth, and our life.

As Saint Benedict says, “And may He bring us all together to life everlasting.” (Rule of St. Benedict, 72)

 

Friday of the Fourth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

Mass for the school children:

One of the most important things we can ever learn is that God loves us very much.  God created us because of love: if he didn’t love us, he never would have made us, because God never makes anything that he doesn’t love.  God is love, and so God can’t do anything other than love us.

Unfortunately, we can sometimes do something other than love God.  He gave us free will, and sometimes that’s a problem.  Sometimes that’s a challenge.  God freely chose to love us, and so he wants us to freely choose to love him.  But, because we have free will, sometimes we don’t do that.  There are lots of things out there that we often choose to love instead: we might love things, choosing to care about the nice things we own rather than about other people or about our relationship with God.  We might even choose to do things that turn us away from God, like following the crowd and doing things we shouldn’t, like bullying others, that kind of thing.

And the problem is, it’s easy to get distracted from God’s love.  There are lots of people that try to get us to go the wrong way.  It might be a commercial that convinces us that we have to have something we really don’t need.  It could be someone who is trying to get us to try drugs or alcohol.  It could be a person who tells us we’re ugly, or dumb, or just not a good person.  All these voices are wrong, but we hear them so often, it’s hard sometimes to find God in all the confusion.

But there is a way.  And that’s what today’s Gospel is all about.  Because God loves us, he wants us to find our way back to him.  He wants us to hear that he is still there, that he still loves us, even among all those voices who confuse us sometimes.  He made us out of love, and he wants us to return to him one day and share eternal life with him.  And when life confuses us and tries to convince us that we aren’t worthy of God’s love, he gives us Jesus.  Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.  He is the one way back to the Father.

And that’s good news, because we know Jesus, don’t we?  We know that we can find him in our lives and especially here at Mass.  We can be with Jesus as we hear the words of the readings, and as we come to receive him in Holy Communion.  We don’t need all kinds of useless “stuff.”  We don’t need drugs or alcohol or anything else.  We are not ugly or dumb or unlovable.  We are made by God who makes all things good and makes all of us out of love.  All we need is Jesus who wants more than anything for us to know that God loves us.  Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.  Don’t ever forget that.  Don’t ever take your eyes off Jesus.

 

Monday of the Fourth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

When God made the human person, he put into him and her a hunger and a thirst that could only be filled up with God.  God made us for himself, because he is Love itself and Love must always have an object of that love.  As Saint Augustine said well, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”  The Psalmist also says that today in his words:

As the hind longs for the running waters,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
Athirst is my soul for God, the living God.
When shall I go and behold the face of God?

Given that all people are created with this spiritual hunger, it should not have come as a huge shock to the circumcised believers that many Gentiles were turning to follow Christ.  Christ showed us the most perfect way to the Father, the only One who can fill up all the longings of the human heart.  Every conversion story is a return of the soul to our God; a filling up of the heart with what it really lacks.

We try to fill up our lives with all kinds of things.  We turn on the television to drown out the silence.  We seek refuge in food and drink and career and even darker things.  But all of this is nothing more than a misguided attempt to fill up our lives with things that do not matter.  We can only fill ourselves up with what we truly long for: God himself.

 

Monday of the Third Week of Easter

Today’s readings

So they drag Saint Stephen before the Sanhedrin, and make all sorts of false claims against him.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  In fact, Stephen is in good company.  He is brought to the same place where his Lord Jesus, and later Peter and the apostles, have gone before him.  And just like all of them, even with all the lies and accusations flying around him, he is at peace.  The source of his peace, is of course, his Lord who has gone before him, that same Lord who now fills him, as the first line of the reading says, with “grace and power.”  The peace that fills the martyrs is remarkable, and indicates that they have indeed been called to that kind of witness and are empowered to withstand it by their God.

We too, will be tested in this life because of our faith.  We too, can rely on that same grace and power if we unite ourselves to our Risen Lord.  Maybe we won’t be called on to actually give up our lives, but we will are all called at one time or another to suffer in some way when we authentically give witness to our faith.  Like Stephen and the martyrs, that is our calling, and we can rely on the help of the Lord to get us through it.