Monday of the Fourth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

“Athirst is my soul for the Living God.”

The Psalmist today sums up what is going on in the entire Liturgy of the Word.  In the book of Acts, we see that even the Gentiles seek salvation in Christ, and Peter learns that those God has called to holiness cannot be treated as unclean.  In the Gospel, we have the image of the Good Shepherd – a bit of a re-run from yesterday – whose voice the faithful hear in the depths of their hearts.

At the core of our creation, all of us – and not just the “us” who are here in this church, but all people – all of us yearn for the Living God.  This is not surprising, because God made us – all of us – for himself, in his own image.  This is an important point for us Christians to get: God made all of us, created us good, created us for himself.  And so, deep down inside, every person yearns for the Living God.

And it’s this realization that makes our lack of unity so very troublesome; it’s this realization that puts the work of evangelization on the front burner.  God created only one People and Christ established only one Church.  God made us to be one, and one with him, and it is sin that has driven us apart and kept us apart for so very, very long.

And so our goal as God’s people is to become one in him who made us, and one in him who redeemed us.  The work of evangelization is so important because God’s creation will not be complete until all of us are one.  And so we disciples have to make it our life’s vocation to see to it that everyone who knows us hears Christ in us, we have to open doors so that people can come to Christ and we have to tear down barriers of hostility or elitism.  The souls of every person cry out, “Athirst is my soul for the Living God.”  Who, then, are we to hinder God’s unifying work?

The Fourth Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday)

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel reading speaks of Jesus, the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep, and whose sheep know him.  However, I have two problems with that.  First, who wants to be compared to sheep?  Sheep are not the brightest of animals, and they must remain in their flock to defend themselves against even the most innocuous of predators.  Second, how are the sheep, if that is how we are to be called, to hear the shepherd in this day and age?  There are so many things that vie for our attention, that it would be easy to miss the call of the shepherd altogether.

So let’s look at these issues.  First, many who raise and nurture sheep would perhaps disagree with my assessment that they aren’t very bright.  I have been told that sheep do have the innate ability to hear their master’s voice, and that they also innately wish to remain part of the flock.  So we can see that sheep seem to know what it takes to survive.  And maybe we don’t know that as well as we should.  How often do we place a priority on being within earshot of our Master?  How willing are we to remain part of the community in good times and in bad?  Yet Jesus makes it clear today that this is the only way we can survive spiritually, the only way we can come at last to eternal life.

So what will it take to overcome my second objection?  What will it take for us sheep to hear our Master’s voice?  We who are so nervous about any kind of silence that we cannot enter a room without the television on as at least background noise.  We who cannot go anywhere without our cell phones and/or iPods implanted firmly in our ears?  We who cannot bear to enter into prayer without speaking all kinds of words and telling God how we want to live our lives?  If even our prayer and worship are cluttered with all kinds of noise, how are we to hear the voice of our Shepherd who longs to gather us in and lead us to salvation?

The “elephant in the room” question, though, is this: how are we to hear the Shepherd’s voice if there are no shepherds to make it known?  Today is the world day of prayer for vocations.  And I want to talk about all vocations today, but in a special way, I want to talk about vocations to the priesthood, religious life and the permanent diaconate.  Because it is these vocations, and especially the priesthood, that are called upon to be the voice of Christ in today’s world.  This is a special, and difficult challenge, and I know there are young people in this community that are being called to it.  We hear in today’s Liturgy of the Word that this task is not always easy because it is not universally accepted, as Peter and the other disciples were quickly finding out.  But it is a task that brings multitudes of every nation, race, people and tongue to the great heavenly worship that is what they have been created for.  People today need to hear the voice of the Shepherd, but who will the voice of Jesus when I retire?  Who will be that voice when there aren’t enough priests in our diocese for every church to have one?  Who will preach the Word of God when Deacon Frank, Deacon Alex, Deacon Al and Deacon Dave retire?

We know that every person has a vocation.  Every person is called on by God to do something specific with their life that will bring not only them, but also others around them, to salvation.  Parents help to bring their children to salvation by raising them in the faith.  Teachers help bring students to salvation by educating them and helping them to develop their God-given talents.  Business people bring others to salvation by living lives of integrity and witness to their faith by conducting business fairly and with justice and concern for the needy.  The list goes on.  Every vocation, every authentic vocation, calls the disciple to do what God created them for, and helps God to bring salvation to the whole world.

Eleven years ago on this very Sunday, I was struggling with my vocation.  Honestly, I knew that God was calling me to give up my comfortable life and go to seminary to study for the priesthood.  But I did not want to go.  I was already doing what I wanted to do with my life and thought it was going pretty well.  But on some level, I knew that life as a disciple required me to do what God wanted, and not necessarily what I wanted.  I had found out that there was an open house that day at the Diocesan Vocations Office.  I wasn’t interested and I wasn’t going.  And that day, the celebrant preached on vocations and made the point that living as a disciple meant that at some point we have to stop asking the question, “what do I want to do with my life?” and start asking, “what does God want me to do with my life?” And I already knew the answer to that question: God wanted me to go to that vocations open house that day, and so I did.  Four months later, I was in seminary.

What about you?  Are you doing what God wants you to do with your life?  Maybe your answer won’t require such a radical change as mine did, although perhaps it does.  Maybe it means you renew your commitment to your family, your work, your life as a disciple.  But if you’re a young person out there and have only been thinking about what’s going to make you successful and bring in lots of money so you can retire at age 35, maybe God is today asking you to stop thinking only of yourself and put your life’s work at the service of the Gospel.  Maybe you’ll be called on to be a teacher, or a police officer, or a health care professional.  And maybe, just maybe, God is calling you to enter the priesthood or religious life.  And for those who are fathers and empty nesters, it’s quite possible that you feel a tug in your heart to do something more to live the Gospel.  Maybe you are being called to a life of service as a permanent deacon.

On this day of prayer for vocations, I’m just asking you to pray that God would make his plans for your life clear to you, and that you would promise God to do what he asks of you.  I can tell you first hand that nothing, absolutely nothing, will make you happier.

Monday of the Third Week of Easter

Today’s readings

Well, it doesn’t take long.  Just on Saturday at Mass, we heard about the selection of the first deacons of the Church, including Saint Stephen.  And now, today we hear of his persecution and impending death sentence.  The life of faith certainly has its ups and downs, doesn’t it?  I am sure we can all relate to that at some point or another in our lives.

So they drag Saint Stephen before the Sanhedrin, and make all sorts of false claims against him.  Actually, 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 already traveled the Way of the Cross, that same Lord who now fills him, as the first line of the reading says, with “grace and power.”

We too, will be tested in this life because of our faith.  It can and will get us into trouble if we let it.  But we too can rely on that same grace and power if we unite ourselves to our Risen Lord.  As the Psalmist says today, “Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord.”

Monday of the Second Week of Easter

Today’s readings

One of the great things about being Catholic, I think, is the celebration of Easter. We do it up right, and keep doing it for fifty days! In fact, just yesterday we completed our celebration of Easter Day, which lasts for eight full days. It certainly makes sense to us that the joy of our salvation should be celebrated with such great festivity, and we shouldn’t be so eager to toss the lilies out of the church.  Today we begin the second phase of our Easter celebration. Having completed the Octave of Easter, we now begin the preparation for the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the first Apostles, and later to each Christian.

We have in our Gospel today the emergence of the interesting figure of Nicodemus. He was a Jew, and one of the Pharisees. But he found Jesus and his message compelling, so a few times in John’s Gospel we get to hear from Nicodemus. Even though the rest of the Pharisees flat out rejected Jesus, Nicodemus knew that he couldn’t reject him so quickly. There was something to this Jesus, and he wanted to get to the bottom of it.  We don’t know if he never fully, publicly accepted Jesus, but he definitely took many steps on the way.

Today Nicodemus and Jesus speak about being born again, born of the Spirit. This for us is a process of accepting the Gospel in faith, and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit and then living as a people reborn. Although we can point to our Confirmation day, and even the day of our Baptism as days when we received the Holy Spirit, the process of accepting the Gospel in faith and living as a people reborn in the Spirit is one that takes the better part of all of our lives. What we celebrate with joy today is that we are on that journey. Because of the Resurrection of Our Lord and his gift of the Holy Spirit, we can now live according to the Spirit’s direction in our lives, confident that that Holy Spirit will give us the gifts and courage to do what we are called to do. The Apostles did that in today’s first reading, and now we must do the same.

The Second Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

Today is the feast day for those of us who sometimes question things, and the apostle, St. Thomas, is our patron saint. And so today we can give Thomas a hard time for his unbelief, and we can disparage all those other “doubting Thomases” in our lives, or, maybe, we can just come to the Lord in our humility and say “My Lord and my God!”

Because I’m sure we can all think of at least one time when we were reluctant to believe something, or had our faith tested, only to have Jesus stand before us and say, “Peace be with you.” I remember the time that it became apparent to me that the Lord was calling me to go to seminary after so many years being out of school. I had a long list of reasons why that wouldn’t work, why it couldn’t be done at this stage of my life, why anyone would be a better choice than me. And I never got a direct answer to any of that. Never. In some ways, all I got was Jesus standing in the midst of my questioning and saying to me “Peace be with you.” And six months later I was in seminary.

You’ve had that same kind of experience at some point in your life, I’d bet. Maybe it was in college when you started really questioning your faith and felt like everything anyone had ever told you was a lie. Or maybe it was the time you were called to do something at Church, or even take a turn in your career, and couldn’t possibly believe that you were qualified to do that. Maybe it was the time it suddenly dawned on you that you were a parent, and had no idea how you could ever raise a child. It could even have been the time when you completely changed your career – as I did – and weren’t totally sure that was God’s will for you.

Like Thomas, we want evidence, hard facts, a good hard look at the big picture, before we’re ready to jump in. We want to “see the mark of the nails in his hands and put our fingers into the nail-marks and put our hands into his side.” But that’s not faith. Some people say that seeing is believing, but faith tells us that believing is seeing. “Blessed are they,” Jesus says, “who have not seen but still believe.” We sometimes first have to make an act of faith, a leap of faith if you will, before we can really see what God is doing in our lives. And that’s the hard part; that’s the part that, like Thomas, we are reluctant to do.

Jesus makes three invitations to us today. The first is to believe. Believe with all your heart and mind and soul. Believe first, and leave the seeing to later. Trust that God is with you, walking with you, guiding you, willing the best for you. This is Divine Mercy Sunday, so we are called to trust in our merciful God who pours out his love on us each day.  Be ready to make that leap of faith. What God has in store for us is so much better than our puny plans for our lives. Be blessed by not seeing but still believing.

The second invitation is to touch. “Put your finger here and see my hands,” Jesus says to Thomas, “and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” He makes that same invitation to us every time we walk up to receive Holy Communion. What a gift it is to be able to share in Christ’s wounds, to be bound up in his Passion, to live the resurrection and to be nourished by his very body and blood. Just like Thomas, we’re invited to touch so that we too might believe.

The third invitation is to live a new day. The Gospel tells us that Jesus first came to the Apostles on the evening of the “first day of the week.” That detail isn’t there so that we know what day it is or can mark our calendars. In the Gospel, the “first day of the week” refers to the new day that Jesus is bringing about – a new day of faith, a new day of trust in God’s Divine Mercy, a new day of being caught up in God’s life. We are invited to that new day every time we gather for worship.

We have doubts, periodically and sometimes persistently. But God does not abandon us in our doubt. Just like Thomas, he comes to us in the midst of our uncertainty and says to us: “Do not be unbelieving, but believe.” “Peace be with you.”

Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of the Lord

Today’s readings
(Although I did use the Gospel reading from the Vigil, because I can!) 

“Do not be amazed!” – I just love that line in the Gospel. We have to get behind the sentiment of that statement today if we are to really understand what this day is all about. We believe in a God who is very surprising. All through the Bible, we can read stories of people trying to come to terms with God, and just when they thought they had him all figured out, he bursts in to their complacency and says, “No, that’s not it, you just don’t get me at all, do you?”

That happens to us too, doesn’t it? God surprises us all the time. Most often, people note the bad surprises: the death of a loved one, an illness, loss of a job. But those things are not of God. God didn’t make those surprises; he allows them in this imperfect world, but they are not his will for us. What is his will for us is what truly surprises us: the grace to deal with a difficult situation with a strength we never knew we had, the help of a friend or loved one at just the right time, words spoken by a stranger or an acquaintance that help us to find the ability to journey on from where we are. And in our surprise, God says, “Do not be amazed!”

To really get how surprising this day must have been for Jesus’ disciples, we have to have been involved in the story to this point. Jesus had been doing wonderful, amazing things: healing the sick, raising the dead, speaking words of challenge and hope. The Jewish leaders of the time became more and more uncomfortable with his message, seeing it as blasphemy and a rejection of everything good and holy. More and more, their anger raged up, and many times they attempted to arrest him. Finally, the movement against him rises to a fever pitch. Judas, who thought he would get rich off this wonder-worker Jesus, grows disillusioned to the point that he is willing to hand Jesus over to them.

Jesus’ hour had come: he was put through a farce of a trial, brutally beaten and contemptuously treated. Finally he is nailed to a cross and suffers hours of agony and abandonment by most of his disciples before he gives us his spirit at last. All seemed darker than dark. Jesus is placed in a tomb that was not his own by people who had just been acquaintances. His friends have fled in fear. His mother and some women wept at the end of it all. Things couldn’t have been worse or more hopeless.

But then came the morning. Some of the women go to anoint his body for its burial, and just when they are wondering who is going to help them roll the stone away so they can get in to the tomb, they come upon the tomb, open and empty. They had to be utterly amazed – they probably didn’t even know what had actually happened. But as they stood there, mouths hanging open, thoughts reeling in their minds, the messenger appears: “Do not be amazed!” Jesus said he would rise, and rise he did, hammering home the point that hopelessness is no obstacle to God’s power, that fear is no match for grace, that death and darkness are nothing compared to God’s great love. Do not be amazed!

Even that is not where the wonder of it all stopped. In their joy, the disciples eventually recollected themselves and were able to go out and tell people what had happened. Christ, crucified, overcame death to rise to new life. In the light of the resurrection, they came to understand what Jesus had always preached and they also received the grace of the Spirit so that they could preach it to others. Their preaching shaped the Church, guiding it through the centuries to our own day. Today we gather not just to remember an amazing event that happened two thousand years ago, but rather to experience the joy of that resurrection with those women at the tomb, with the disciples who heard about it from them, with all the people from every time and place, on earth and in heaven, all of us who have had the Gospel preached to us. We are the Church: we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus as one. Do not be amazed!

And the marvel continues: the death and resurrection of Christ has had an effect on this cold and dark and sinful world. Through that wonderful saving action, the finality of our death has been obliterated, the vicious cycle of our sins has been erased. We have been freed from it all through the power of grace, freely given if we will freely accept it, lavished out on all of us prodigal ones who return to God with sorrow for our sins and hope for forgiveness. We have truly been saved and delivered. Do not be amazed!

We have also been given the great gift of eternal life. In his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has broken the prison-bars of death and risen triumphant from the underworld. Because of that, our graves will never be our final resting place, pain and sorrow and death will be temporary, and we who believe and follow our risen Lord have hope of life that lasts forever. Just as Christ’s own time on the cross and in the grave was brief, so our own pain, death, and burial will be as nothing compared to the ages of new life we have yet to receive. We have hope in these days because Christ who is our hope has overcome the obstacles to our living. Do not be amazed!

Back on the evening of Holy Thursday, when the Church gathered to commemorate the giving of the Eucharist, the entrance antiphon told us what was to come.  It said:

We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

And this morning, we gather to celebrate that that is truly what has happened. Through the cross and resurrection we are saved and delivered so to live the salvation, life and resurrection that God always intended for us to have. We should glory in the cross! Do not be amazed!

The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night

Tonight’s readings

We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

We have come to the pinnacle of our vigil, this mother of vigils, focused now as we have been since our Liturgy began on Thursday night, on the Cross.  Over these past days, the Cross has become an icon of God’s love, the ladder to eternity, the linchpin of grace.  That horrible Cross was, on Holy Thursday, the threat of obscurity to a people under the thumb of the Roman Empire.  That same Cross became on Good Friday the delight of Satan, whose evil laughter we could almost hear when our Savior died.  Tonight, as we have kept vigil, we have seen that the Cross has become the altar of God’s most conclusive act of self-emptying, opening the door of grace to all of us who have already died the death of sin.  The Cross is proof that there is nothing the princes of this world, nor the prince of darkness himself, can do to thwart the salvation God offers us.  We should glory in the Cross!

As we have kept Vigil here on this Holy Night, we have heard the stories of our salvation.  We have seen that time and time again, God has broken through the history of our brokenness, has triumphed over the lure of sin, and has redirected his chosen ones to the path of life.  Salvation history has brought us to the fullness of this night, not just a memorial of the Resurrection, but a real sharing in Christ’s triumph.  This is the night when Christ makes the ultimate Passover; leading us through theRed Sea of his blood, poured out for us, holding back the raging waters of sin and death, and guiding us, his brothers and sisters, into the Promised Land of salvation.  This is the night when the fire of his love blazes for all eternity to provide an enduring light in our dark world.  This is the night when our faith tells us that we are not the same as the rest of the world; we are a people set apart from all that drags humanity down to death.  This is the night when death itself is defeated by Christ our God rising from the depths of the underworld!

This night brings our human experience into focus.  Our Easter Proclamation, the Exsultet, sung at the beginning of our time together, proclaimed: “O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!  O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”  Maybe it makes us bristle a bit to think that sin was necessary to merit the Sacrifice of our Lord.  But the Church has always taught that God permitted evil in the world in order to triumph over it.  Saint Augustine writes, “God judged it better to bring good out of evil, than to allow no evil to exist.”  And Saint Thomas Aquinas recalls the words of Saint Paul and the ancient text of this very Exsultet to explain: “But there is no reason why human nature should not have been raised to something greater after sin.  For God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good therefrom; hence it is written (Romans 5:20): ‘Where sin abounded, grace did more abound.’ Hence, too, in the blessing of the Paschal candle, we say: ‘O happy fault, that merited such and so great a Redeemer!’”

God delights in the freedom of will that we possess as a natural part of who we are because it gives us the opportunity to freely choose to love him, as he freely chooses to love us.  But he knows that same free will can and will also lead us astray, into sin, into evil.  The free choice to love God is a greater good than the absence of evil, so not imbuing us with free will was never an option.  Instead, the evil of our sin is redeemed on this most holy of all nights, this night which “dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.”

And thus it is fitting that this night is the night when we focus on Baptism.  Everything is in place: the waters of the Red Sea are parted, the pillar of fire glows to the honor of God, we are led to grace and joined to God’s holy ones of every time and place, Christ emerges triumphant from the underworld and the sin of Adam is redeemed forever.  And so our Elect in a few moments will enter the waters of Baptism from the west: that place of the setting sun, renouncing the prince of darkness, professing faith in God, dying with Christ in the waters, emerging to new life,  triumphant with Christ on the east, and encountering the bright morning star whose light blazes for all eternity.  We will hold our breath as the waters flow over them, and sing Alleluia when they are reborn, crying out the praise of God with all the joy the Church can muster!

This is the night that redeems all our days and nights.  This is the night when sin and death are rendered impotent by the plunging of the Paschal candle, the Light of Christ, into the waters of Baptism.  This is the night that even the Cross, that instrument of cruelty and death, is transfigured, redeemed to the praise and honor and glory of God!

We should glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.