Memorial Day

Today’s readings.

One of the effects of a presidential election year for me, is taking a long hard look at who we hold up as our leaders or our heroes.  In some ways, a presidential election is an emergence of whoever is the least objectionable candidate, because in this day and age, it’s hard to get good people to run for office.  And who could blame them?  It’s so hard for candidates to deal with all that public scrutiny, the months of campaigning, the financial outlay.  It seems sometimes that those willing to go through all of that aren’t exactly the cream of the crop.  But apply that to any other field of interest.  What about our sports heroes, or entertainers?  How many of them turn out to be flawed in many ways?  The people we want to hold up as heroes are very often not very heroic.

But today is a day to celebrate true heroes. Memorial 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.  So today we remember those men and women who have given their lives for peace, justice, and righteousness.  These have been people who have given everything, have made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.   Just as Jesus in our Gospel today encourages us all to give everything for the Gospel, these people are true heroes because of their ultimate sacrifice.

On this day, I think it would be a mistake to glorify warfare.  I don’t think that is the best way to honor the memories of those who have fallen in war.  Our Church’s teachings counsel that war is not the way to peace and that developed societies like ours can and must use our resources to seek other ways to solve problems.  But we have to acknowledge that there are and have been times in our nation’s history that have called on people to fight for our freedoms and to fight for justice.  Today we honor their memory with immense gratitude, because without their sacrifice we probably wouldn’t be free to worship today.

Our heroes should always include those who have given their lives for justice, righteousness, and the faith.  Today, we might call to mind the great martyrs of the Church, those who have shed their own blood that we might have the Gospel.  Perhaps they inspired those who have given their lives in service to our country.

Today we pray for those who have been part of our lives, part of the life of our Church, and the life of our country.  These are the ones who have been people of faith and integrity and are true heroes that God has given us.  These are the ones who have laid down their lives for what is right.  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

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
w
ho proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.

We say these words every Sunday, and unfortunately I think they can become a little rote.  And that’s too bad, because they are beautiful words, and they have been given to us at great cost.  We should pray them perhaps a bit more reflectively today, on this feast of the Holy Spirit.

So these words are the part of the Creed that speaks of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, whose feast we celebrate today.  Today is the birthday of the Church, the moment when the Spirit descended upon those first Apostles and was passed on through them to every Christian ever since.  The Holy Spirit emboldened those first disciples and continues to pour gifts on all of us so that the Church can continue the creative and redemptive works of the Father and the Son until Christ comes in glory.  That is what we gather to celebrate today.

At the Ascension of Christ into heaven, which we celebrated last Sunday, the apostles had been told to wait in the city until they were clothed with power from on high.  This is exactly what we celebrate today.  Christ returned to the Father in heaven, and they sent the Holy Spirit to be with the Church until the end of time.  That Holy Spirit is absolutely necessary so that God can continue to work in the world and be in the world while Christ was no longer physically present.

I don’t know if we understand how radically the Holy Spirit changes things.  The Fathers of the Church wrote about it very plainly.  Saint Cyril of Alexandria writes: “It can be easily shown from examples both in the Old Testament and the New that the Spirit changes those in whom he comes to dwell; he so transforms them that they begin to live a completely new kind of life.  Saul was told by the prophet Samuel: The Spirit of the Lord will take possession of you, and you shall be changed into another man.  Saint Paul writes: As we behold the glory of the Lord with unveiled faces, that glory, which comes from the Lord who is the Spirit, transforms us all into his own likeness, from one degree of glory to another.”

And we do see the work of the Holy Spirit on those disciples of the early Church.  They were confused people.  They had no idea what to do now that Jesus had died and risen.  Think about it.  What if you were there?  What would you have made of all that?  Would you know what to do next any better than they would?  I don’t think I’d do very well!  But it was the Holy Spirit that changed them.  And thank God for that, or we wouldn’t have the Church to guide us today!

The Spirit changed Peter from an impulsive, bumbling disciple to an Apostle of great strength.  He shared his own gift of the Holy Spirit with many others, baptizing them and confirming them in the faith.  He guided the Church from its rough beginnings to the birth of something great.  The other Apostles likewise went out, bringing the Gospel and the gift of the Holy Spirit to all corners of the then-known world.  Their witness eventually brought the Church to us, in our own day.  The Spirit changed Saul from a man who oversaw the imprisonment and murder of Christians into Paul, a man who was on fire for the faith.  His preaching and writing converted whole communities of Gentiles and helped them believe in the Gospel, and continues to inspire us in our own day.

The Holy Spirit has continued to work in the hearts and minds of countless saints through the ages, making up for any personal inadequacies they may have had and giving them the strength to teach truth, write convincing testimonials, reach out to the poor and needy, bind up the broken and bring hurting souls to the Lord.

That same Holy Spirit continues to work among us in our own day, if we are open, if we let him do what he wills.  The Holy Spirit is still making saints, guiding men and women to do things greater than they are capable of all on their own, for the honor and glory of God.  This is the Spirit who enables you to have words to speak to someone who is questioning the faith, or to a child who wants to know why the sky is blue, or to a friend who needs advice that you don’t know how to give.  The Spirit even speaks for us when we are trying to pray and don’t know quite what to say to God.

The Spirit gives us the inspiration to do acts of mercy and love.  It is the Holy Spirit who encourages you to take on a ministry at church, or to coach a softball team, or to look in on a sick friend or neighbor, or give an elderly parishioner a ride to church.  It is the Spirit who inspires us to pray in new ways, to grow in devotion, to spend more time getting closer to the Lord.  All in all, it is the Holy Spirit who helps us to find the way to heaven, the goal of all of our lives.

We should pray for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit every morning of our lives.  It’s amazing how much that changes me over time.  The prayer I learned at my Confirmation is as good a way to pray that as any, and maybe you know it too.  If you do, pray along with me:

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

Amen.

School Graduation

Readings:  Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 145, 1 John 3:18-24, John 15:1-8

My dear graduates, you are gathered here for the last time as a class.  This has been your home away from home 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 of us 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 probably 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 over the last few weeks, 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 reflect on what is the focus of this particular school, reflect on what Jesus teaches us about success.

And what Jesus has to say about success might sound counter-intuitive.  During his life, people often heard him speak and thought he was crazy.  They may have laughed and written him off, or maybe they got angry and walked away.  Some even were so angry that they eventually had him arrested and put to death.  But we know, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, with eyes filled with grace and formed by the Church, that Jesus’ words are words to live by.  So let’s listen to some of the radical things he had to say about success.

First, he said that one can be successful in the humblest of circumstances.  To be fair, he didn’t really say that out loud, he actually just said it by who he was.  When he came to earth, he could have done that in so many ways.  Because he is God, he could have come with great fanfare, with a mighty army and amazing signs like a solar eclipse and a great earthquake.  But he didn’t.  He came as a little baby, with no more than a quiet cry in the night, laying in a manger, born in the poorest of circumstances.  But he made those circumstances the beginning of salvation for the whole world.  So it’s not what you start with, instead it’s what you let God do in you that counts.  If you want to be successful, don’t be dragged down by the pains of yesterday, don’t be bitter about where life started for you; instead, reach out to tomorrow with all the grace God gives you.

The second thing Jesus might tell us is that if you want to be successful, do some things you don’t have to do.  Before Jesus began his work, St. John the Baptist was baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins.  At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus came to John for baptism.  He didn’t have to, because he had no sin.  But he did it anyway, to identify with sinners – that’s you and me – and to make the waters of baptism holy by his being in them.  By doing something he didn’t have to do, he made real forgiveness possible for all of us.  By doing something you don’t have to, maybe you can make life better for others in some way too.

Jesus might also tell us that to be successful, we need to repent.  A lot of people think they don’t need to repent, but the truth is, we all do.  All of us fall down in our devotion to and friendship with God at some point or another, and that can cause our lives to spin out of control.  Or, if we are real followers of Jesus, we can use the opportunity to turn back, ask forgiveness, and move forward.  God can use those occasions when we mess up to give us grace that moves us beyond our imaginings.  He did that for the disciples, and he wants to do it for us disciples too.  All we have to do is repent, turn back, open the door to mercy.

Jesus would also tell us that being successful means laying down our lives.  He sure did it – up there on that cross.  We too will have to lay down our lives for what we believe in, and lay down our lives for others.  Because our belief in Jesus may come at odds with what others think, or what they are doing.  We will then have to decide to go along with others or lay down our lives for Jesus.  We will have to lay down our lives for others, too.  We may have to give up our own selfish interests so that the important people in our lives can know that we care for them.  Jesus told us quite clearly: there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  And he modeled it in the most radical way possible by giving his life for us.

And finally, I think Jesus would tell us, as he does in the Gospel tonight, that we have to remain in him if we want to be truly successful.  Listen to what he says again: “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.”  Nothing.  Nothing really good will happen apart from our life in Christ.  And so it’s important that you continue to do what you’ve learned here at Notre Dame: pray every day, go to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation and even during the week when you can, receive the Holy Eucharist and go to Confession often.  Stay connected to Christ, remain in Christ, and you will be truly successful in life.

Take a look at the Cross.  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.

For all these years, you’ve been hearing how to be successful.  We’ve given you the tools as best we can.  If you remember these things and use them and grow in them, you will be successful, happy and blessed.  The goal of all our lives is to get to heaven one day, and for the time you’ve been in our Catholic school, we have done our best to give you what you need to get there, because getting to heaven is the ultimate badge of success.  Be reasonably happy in this life, but we want you to be eternally happy with Christ in heaven one day.  May God bless you in every moment of your lives.  And don’t ever forget where your spiritual home is: right here at Notre Dame.

Friday of the Seventh Week of Easter (School Mass)

Today’s readings

Jesus’ words to Peter in this Gospel reading are a mixture of comfort, challenge, and warning.  We have to think back to what happened between Peter and Jesus just before Easter.  Peter had just messed up in the worst way possible by denying his friend not once but three times.  People asked if he knew the Lord, but he denied him every time.  Then came Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection.  Peter and Jesus hadn’t yet had a chance to talk about what happened.  So today’s Gospel is the first chance they’ve had for a heart to heart since the resurrection.

Jesus asks him: “Peter, do you love me?”  And Peter says “of course.”  Then he asks him again, and a third time even.  He asks Peter three times not because he didn’t hear him, and not even because he didn’t know what Peter would say.  He asks him three times because Peter denied him three times.  So Jesus comforts Peter in this way, because with each asking, Jesus is healing Peter from the inside out.

After Jesus heals Peter, he challenges him:  “Feed my sheep.” 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.  These are the ways Jesus calls us when we have been redeemed.

Finally, Jesus has for Peter words of warning: “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.”  This foretold that Peter would give his life as a martyr for the faith.  He denied his Lord three times, but he would never do it again!  Martyrdom was certainly a scary idea, but when we give ourselves over to God, that necessarily means that we might have to go in a direction we might not otherwise choose.

At the end of the reading, Jesus brings Peter back to comfort and healing once again by saying “Follow me.”  Yes, Peter had messed up, but Jesus knew that he was better than that.  We mess up too, don’t we?  But Jesus doesn’t write us off, either.  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.

So Jesus asks us all today: “Do you love me?”

Monday of the Seventh Week of Easter

Today’s readings

In these days after the Ascension, the Liturgy calls us to turn and find our hope and security in God.  Certainly this was difficult for the early disciples, who tested Jesus to see if he was who he said he was.  They were satisfied with what they found, and said they believed in him.  But Jesus here speaks an essential truth of the spiritual life: it’s easy to believe when things are going okay.  He prophecies that they will all be tested, and indeed they were, and were scattered, and had to come to belive in him all over again.

The same will be true for us disciples in our own lives.  We can make an easy enough profession of faith when we are well and things are going smoothly.  But the minute some kind of challenge enters our lives, we have to decide if we are believers all over again.  It’s not easy to believe in the ascended Jesus – he is not immediately visible to our sight.  But, even though he is unseen, he is still very much with us.

He may be in the heaven of our hopes, but he also walks among us.  We have to look for signs of his presence everywhere we go.  And we will find those signs in moments of joy, times of inspiration, words from others that uplift us.  Jesus didn’t disappear from our lives when he ascended into heaven; he promised to be with us until the end of time.  We are sustained by the hope that we will join him one day in the place he is preparing for us.

The world may very well scatter us and give us trouble; Jesus said as much.  But we can take courage in the fact that Jesus has overcome the world and has not abandoned us.

Saint Matthias

Today’s readings

We don’t really know much about St. Matthias. We have no idea what kind of holiness of life he led that led to his being nominated as one of two possibilities to take Judas’s position among the Twelve Apostles. But clearly, they would have nominated a holy and faithful man, and then they left the deciding up to the Holy Spirit. Praying, they cast lots, and the lots selected Matthias, who then became one of the Twelve. He is not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament, so we don’t know much about his ministry.

What is striking about the selection of St. Matthias though is that this is the first of the disciples or Apostles that was not selected directly by Jesus.  Jesus selected all of the original Twelve, but Matthias is the first to be selected by the fledgling Church on the authority passed on by Jesus himself. They act not on their own, but on the authority of Jesus, being led by the Holy Spirit for the glory of God the Father.

A similar process has been repeated through the ages, over and over again, to select men to be popes, bishops, priests and deacons, and men and women for religious communities. It is the forerunner of the process of discernment that we use for leadership positions in our parish. The process begins with prayer and ends with thanksgiving and glory to God. People may propose the candidates as being noted for holiness and ability, but it is God who makes the final choice.

Today we praise God for the Twelve Apostles, of which Matthias was one. We praise God for the authority of the Apostles which has echoed through the ages giving guidance to the Church. We praise God for the gift of the Holy Spirit who is active in all our decision making.

The Sixth Sunday of Easter [B]

Today’s readings

Well, I think it’s pretty hard to miss the point of today’s Liturgy of the Word, isn’t it?   The second reading and the Gospel tell us what John wants us to know about the Gospel: God is love.  That’s a wonderful theme that runs all through John’s Gospel and the Letters of John.  And today, deep into the Easter season, we have a beautiful presentation of what that love should look like, what it should accomplish, and where it should lead us.

And it’s an important road map for us, I think.  We get all kinds of notions about what love is and what it’s not.  But mostly these are pretty erroneous, or at least facile.  Because for us love can mean so many different things.  I can say, “cookies are my favorite food – I love cookies!” and that’s not the kind of love Jesus wants us to know about today.  When we say “love” in our language, we could mean an attraction, like puppy love, or we could mean that we like something a lot, or we might even be referring to sex.  And none of that is adequate to convey the kind of love that is the hallmark of Jesus’ disciples.

Here, I think it’s important to look at the Greek word which is being translated “love” here.  That word is agapeAgape is the love of God, or love that comes from God.  It is outwardly expressed in the person of Jesus Christ, who came to show the depth of God’s love by dying on the Cross to pay the price for our many sins.  So that’s the kind of love that Jesus is talking about today.

To really see what Jesus meant by love in today’s Gospel, we have to see what he was doing.  Today’s Gospel has him readying the disciples for the mission.  He has them gathered together and reassures them that whatever their personal gifts or failings, they have been chosen for the mission.  And it was just that – he chose them, they didn’t choose him.  And they had been chosen to do something very important for the kingdom of God.  They have been chosen to create a legacy – to bear fruit that will remain.  He could have given them all sorts of detailed instructions on how to go about doing this, but that’s not what he did.  He gave them just one instruction: “This is my commandment: love one another.”  It is that love that will bring lasting joy to his disciples.

But he does get more detailed in his description of what it means to love one another.  “Love one another as I have loved you,” he says to them.  And that’s an important point, I think: “as I have loved you.”   In the same way I have loved you.  And we can see how far Jesus took that – all the way to the cross.  He loved us enough to take our sins upon himself and nail them to the cross, dying to pay the price for those sins, and being raised from the dead to smash the power of those sins to control our eternity.  So the love that Jesus is talking about here is sacrificial.  And he says it rather plainly in one of my favorite pieces of Holy Scripture: “No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  This sacrificial quality an important property of agape love.

And the disciples clearly were called to that kind of sacrificial love.  The Apostles all experienced martyrdom, except for John.  They literally died so that people would come to know about Jesus, the Gospel, and God’s love.  Their love did indeed bear fruit that would remain – it remained to found a Church, to spread the Gospel to many lands, to bring the message to us even in our own day.

And the disciples were men and women who experienced joy.  Which isn’t the same thing as saying they were always happy.  They experienced a lot of opposition along the way to founding the Church.  They were persecuted, thrown out of the synagogues, beaten for stirring up trouble, put to death for their faith in Christ.  But they were still people of joy.  Because in their love, the sacrificial love that they received from Christ who chose them and gave them love to start with, they had found a source of joy that could not be controlled by external circumstances.

So that’s what Jesus meant by love in today’s Gospel.  It was a sacrificial love that was contagious, joyfully bringing the Good News to the world, bearing fruit that would remain for eternity.  True love gives without counting the cost.  True love brings others to heaven.

And the thing is, the instruction to love wasn’t meant just for those first disciples.  We know that it was meant for us too.   We may never be asked to literally lay down our lives for those we love, although that kind of thing does happen all the time.  People who give a kidney or bone marrow for another literally lay down their lives in love, maybe even for someone they don’t know very well.  People who take a risk to pull someone out of the path of an oncoming vehicle on the street – those are the kinds of ways that people might live this Gospel message quite literally.  But for most of us, the call to sacrificial love might be a little more ordinary, less dramatic.

We celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend, and this whole instruction on sacrificial, agape love could not be more appropriate.  Mothers are called upon by their vocation to form a bond with their children based on sacrificial love.  Good mothers lay down their lives in the process of bearing children, and then do it over and over again throughout their children’s lives as they nurture them, educate them, protect them and encourage them, finally teaching them, one hopes, that kind of agape love that is the essence of all of our vocations.

So we’re going to look for opportunities this week to love sacrificially.  Doing a chore that’s not our job and not making a big thing of it.  Finding an opportunity to encourage a spouse or child with a kind word that we haven’t offered in a long time.  Picking the neighbor’s trashcan up out of the street when it’s been a windy day.  It doesn’t matter how big or small the thing is we do, what matters is the love we put into it.  Mother Theresa once said, “I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I do know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, he will NOT ask, ‘How many good things have you done in your life?’  Rather he will ask, ‘How much LOVE did you put into what you did?’”

When we are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to love, there is no way we can miss the joy that Jesus wants us to have today.  “Love one another as I have loved you” might be a big challenge, but it might just be the greatest joy of our lives.