The Most Sacred Heart of Jesus

Today’s readings

I remember when I was growing up, often visiting my dear grandmother.  I remember when we visited that she had a beautiful framed picture in the living room, given a spot of honor where everyone could see it, and that picture was of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Whenever I think of the Sacred Heart, I remember grandma, whose name was Margaret Mary, named after the saint who promoted veneration of the Sacred Heart in the first place.

And so, today we celebrate, with incredible gratitude, the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Through his most Sacred Heart, the love of God is made manifest among us.  This love is a pervasive love that burns in our hearts and changes our lives and leads us back to the God who made us for himself.  This love is irresistible if we give ourselves over to it.  It is a love that pursues us and a love that can go far beyond whatever distance we have fallen from grace.  It is a love that, as Moses tells us in the first reading, does not come to us because we are great, but because God has chosen us, and, as Saint John tells us in the second reading, must continue to be poured out by us onto the world around us.  We who have been loved into existence must love others as we have been loved.  The love of God pours forth from the heart of Christ just as the water and blood poured forth from his side as he hung dead on the cross.  Death could not stop the outpouring of grace that he came to bring.

Today’s Gospel reading gives us a beautiful picture of God.  God is love, in fact God is a community of love.  We can recognize God’s presence as we experience love; that is how the Son reveals the Father to his people.  God is love and creates us in love and sustains us in love.  In love, we long to return to him one day.

Today’s feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus finds us wholly consumed by grace.  We have been loved into existence by our God who made us like himself.  We have been loved into grace by Jesus who gave his life rather than live without us.  And we are being loved into heaven as we give ourselves over to the work of the Holy Spirit who is that love between the Father and the Son.  God is love and today we experience how powerful that love can be if we give ourselves over to it.

Thursday of the Twelfth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Some people say all you need to do is make a one-time decision to accept Jesus as your personal Savior and you’re saved.   If salvation were something magical that came about as the result of just saying a simple prayer, once and for all, then why wouldn’t everyone pursue a relationship with Christ?  The fact is, salvation is hard work.  It was purchased at an incredible price by Jesus on the cross.  And for us to make it relevant in our lives, we have work to do too.  Not the kind of work that earns salvation, because salvation is not earned, but the kind of work that appropriates it into our lives.

People who are saved behave in a specific way.  They are people who take the Gospel seriously and live it every day.  They are people of integrity that stand up for what’s right in every situation, no matter what it personally costs.  They are people of justice who will not tolerate the sexist or racist joke, let alone tolerate a lack of concern for the poor and the oppressed.  They are people of deep prayer, whose lives are wrapped up in the Eucharist and the sacraments, people who confront their own sinfulness by examination of conscience and sacramental Penance.  They are people who live lightly in this world, not getting caught up in its excess and distraction, knowing they are citizens of a heaven where such things have no permanence.  Saved people live in a way that is often hard, but always joyful.

Not everyone who claims Jesus as a personal Savior, not everyone who cries out “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven.  That’s what Jesus tells us today.  We have to build our spiritual houses on the solid rock of Jesus Christ, living as he lived, following his commandments, and clinging to him in prayer and sacrament as if our very life depended on it.  Because it does.  It does.

The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist

Today’s readings

Today’s readings have a lot to do with who the prophet is. St. John the Baptist was the last prophet of the old order, and his mission was to herald the coming of Jesus Christ who is himself the new order.  Tradition holds that prophets were created for their mission, that their purpose was laid out while they were yet to be born.  Isaiah, one of the great prophets of the old order, tells us of his commissioning in our first reading today.  He says, “The LORD called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.”  The rest of the reading tells us of his mission, a mission of hardship, but one of being compelled to speak the word of god as a sharp-edged sword.  His calling began as a call to preach to his own people, but by the end of the reading, it is clear that that commission became a call to preach to every nation on earth.

Isaiah says that he was given his name while in his mother’s womb. The same was true of Saint John the Baptist, whose name was given to Zechariah and Elizabeth by the Angel Gabriel.  Names have meaning.  Maybe you know what your name means.  But far more significant are the names of the prophets we encounter in today’s Liturgy of the Word.  Isaiah means “The LORD is salvation,” which pretty much encompassed the meaning of Isaiah’s mission, proclaiming salvation to the Israelites who were oppressed in exile.  The name given to the Baptist, John, means “God has shown favor.”  And that was in fact the message of his life.  He came to pave the way for Jesus Christ, who was the favor of God shown to the whole human race.

Saint Augustine reminds us that in the Gospel of John, there is a passage where John the Baptist says of himself and Jesus, “I must decrease, he must increase.”  Ultimately, the purpose for St. John the Baptist’s life was summed up in that statement.  And so it must be for us.  Sometimes we want to turn the spotlight on ourselves, when that is exactly where it should not be.  For John the Baptist, the spotlight was always on Christ, the One for whom he was unfit to fasten his sandals.  Just as the birth of St. John the Baptist helped his father Zechariah to speak once again, so his life gives voice to our own purpose in the world.  Like St. John the Baptist, we are called to be a people who point to Christ, who herald the Good News, and who live our lives for God.  We are called to decrease, while Christ increases in all of us.  We are called to be that light to the nations of which Isaiah speaks today, so that God’s salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

St. John the Baptist, pray for us.

The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Today’s readings

If you’ve ever travelled abroad, to a country where English is not the spoken language, maybe you’ve had this experience.  I travelled to Mexico when I was in seminary to learn Spanish.  The first day I was there, we went to Mass at the local Cathedral.  Even though at that point my Spanish was pretty sketchy, still I recognized the Mass.  That’s because we celebrate it in the same way, with the same words – albeit in a different language – everywhere on earth.  In the Eucharist, we are one.  “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.

We may express our unity in many ways in the Mass.  We all sing the same songs.  We all stand or sit together.  We might all join hands at the Lord’s Prayer.  And 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 reminder that the Church that Jesus founded and intended 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, of course, mean that we are in fact one.

Another thing that divides all of us from one another is 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.

“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 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.

Tuesday of the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel is one that’s certainly very familiar to us.  But if we’re honest, every time we hear it, it must give us a little bit of uneasiness, right?  Because, yes, it is very easy to love those who love us, to do good to those who do good to us, to greet those who greet us.  And we know that Jesus is right – he always is! – there is nothing special about loving those we know well, and we certainly look forward to greeting our friends and close family.

But that’s not what the Christian life is about.  We know that, but when we get a challenge like today’s Gospel, it hits a little close to home.  Because we all know people we’d rather not show kindness to, don’t we?  We all have that mental list of people who are annoying or who have wronged us or caused us pain.  And to have to greet them, do good to them, even love them, well that all seems too much some days.

And yet that is our call.  We’re held to a higher standard than those proverbial tax collectors and pagans that Jesus refers to.  We are people of the new covenant, people redeemed by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  And so we have to live as if we have been freed from our pettiness, because, in fact, we have.  We are told to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect.  That’s a tall order, but a simple kindness to one person we’d rather not be kind to is all it takes to make a step closer.

Monday of the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s first reading, like the first readings we’ve had last week during daily Mass, kind of makes you cringe.  But these readings are here for a purpose, and the Church wants us to read them for a reason.  The story we have been getting is one of salvation rejected by the ones who need to be saved.  We have to back up just a little bit.  The whole deliverance from slavery in Egypt, which we read about in Lent, symbolized the deliverance from the power of sin.  Wandering through the desert for forty years symbolized the purification that we go through on the way to salvation.  Crossing the River Jordan symbolizes baptism, which wipes away our sins, and entering into the Promised Land symbolizes the salvation from sin, which we all seek.

But this is where it all goes wrong.  When the chosen people crossed into the Promised Land, they were instructed to wipe out all the people who inhabited the land – and not just the people, but the livestock and the cities and everything in them.  They were supposed to do that because God knew that if they lived among these people, the chosen people would be tempted to follow false gods and to turn away from him and do every kind of evil.  Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened: they did not wipe out the people; instead they lived among them.  And they turned away from God and followed the false gods of the people of the land and they did every kind of evil.

Those tempters are represented in today’s first reading by Jezebel.  Even her name has become a symbol of all that is wrong with humanity.  Literature often calls evil women “Jezebels” because of her.  Naboth the Jezreelite was a just man; he earnestly sought the one true God and honored the covenant.  He was not interested in giving up his vineyard, his ancestral heritage which had been given to him and his family by the one true God.  Giving that up to Ahab would have meant doing exactly what God did not want the people to do: turn away from him toward every kind of evil.

Unfortunately, Naboth’s vindication does not come in this life; he loses his life to the evil Jezebel and her scheming.  His own fellow citizens conspire with her and are complicit in her sin – they had turned away from God and would do it again in a heartbeat.  But Ahab and Jezebel’s sin is not rewarded either; we’ll hear about that tomorrow in the first reading.

The question for us today is this: what is the Jezebel in our lives?  What tempts us to give up the salvation of our heritage and turn away from our God?  Whatever it is, we absolutely must put it to death – wipe it out – so that we can live in the promised land of our salvation.

Thursday of the Tenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Sometimes the Gospel just makes good common sense.  Today, the Gospel expands on the Golden Rule, something we should all have learned when we were very little.  As my grandmother used to say, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.  But actually what Jesus is telling us today goes a bit deeper even than that.  Jesus equates the hatred in our hearts with outright murder.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church takes up this theme from this very Gospel reading: “Deliberate hatred is contrary to charity. Hatred of the neighbor is a sin when one deliberately wishes him evil. Hatred of the neighbor is a grave sin when one deliberately desires him grave harm. ‘But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.’” (CCC, 2303)

Today might be a good time for us to examine our consciences for sins against the fifth commandment.  Jesus says that these include murder and abortion, certainly.  But also hatred, vengeance and anger.  This might be a good time for us to call to mind those we have yet to forgive, and to pray for the grace to forgive them.  Or at least the grace to want to forgive them.  This might be a good time for us to look deep within us and ferret out any traces of racism, which is simply hatred directed at a certain group or race.  Casual racist jokes and stereotyping are evidence of a hatred that may be buried deep within us that comes out in inappropriate ways.  Today’s Gospel even hints that gossip, backbiting, and sarcasm directed at a brother or sister in Christ is an attitude that detracts from the dignity of another’s life and has no place in the heart or mind of the disciple.

“I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says to us today.  Our witness to the life and dignity of the human person must be absolutely above reproach, or our witness for life is a sham.  And worse than that, we will have opted out of the Kingdom of heaven.

Saint Boniface, Bishop and Martyr

Today’s readings

St. Boniface was sent by Pope Gregory II to reform the Church in Germany, which had been heavily negatively influenced by the forces of paganism. He sought to restore the fidelity of the German clergy to their bishops, in union with Rome. He also sought to build up houses of prayer throughout the region, in the form of Benedictine monasteries. While he had much success, in the Frankish kingdom, he met great problems because of lay interference in bishops’ elections, the worldliness of the clergy and lack of papal control. During a final mission to the Frisians, he and 53 companions were massacred while he was preparing converts for Confirmation. St. Boniface has been called the apostle to Germany.

In our first reading today, we have one of the great first apostles, Saint Paul, for whom apostleship is becoming quite real.  Nearly torn to pieces by the scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees, the Lord comes to him with some dubious consolation. “Take courage.  For just as you have borne witness to my cause in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness in Rome.”

For both Saint Boniface and Saint Paul, discipleship cost them something, namely their lives.  And they’re not the only ones.  For all of those who take up the call to discipleship, it will cost something.  Maybe not our lives, but certainly our comfort or our point of view or our status at work or in the community.  Living the Gospel and bringing the presence of Christ to the world means we often have to give sacrificially and love unconditionally.

Our hope and safety is in God, and giving sacrificially is possible for us because our Lord has done it first.

The Ascension of the Lord

Today’s readings

Have you ever been at a loss for words?  Have you been in a situation that was so astounding that you were just … speechless?  Hopefully it was for something astoundingly wonderful, as for the apostles as their Lord ascended to heaven.  Can you imagine what was going through the disciples’ minds as they stood there watching the Ascension of the Lord?  Think about all that they’ve been through.  Three years following this Jesus whose words were compelling and whose miracles were amazing and whose way of life was uplifting.  But still, there was something about him that they just never seemed to get.  He said he was the Christ, the Anointed One, and so their strong cultural definition of the Messiah was something they projected onto Jesus, but time after time it just never fit.  Then he gets arrested, tried in a farce of a proceeding, put to death like a common criminal and buried for three days.  After that, he is no longer in the tomb, but has risen from the dead and appeared to them many times.  Now they’re gathered forty days later, and he promises the gift of the Holy Spirit.  They breathlessly ask the question that has always been on their minds, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  They still don’t get it.

And so Jesus promises them the Holy Spirit again, and ascends into the sky.  Can you imagine it?  It’s like a roller coaster of emotions for them.  Their heads had to be spinning, they had to be completely lost as to what to do now.  First he was dead and buried, then he came back, and now he’s gone again.  What on earth are they to do now?  Well, the two mysterious men dressed in white garments have all the advice they’re going to get: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?  This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”  It’s almost as if God is telling them, “You’ll see what comes next, just get on with it.”  And so they do, and they’ll get more help next week on Pentecost, with the coming of the Holy Spirit.  But until then, it’s enough for them and us to be a bit speechless.

We should be a little speechless too.  Honestly, I think these stories have become so engrained in our cultural experience of our religion that we just tend to treat them as nothing special.  But we should be speechless, because the Ascension, as well as the Resurrection, are game-changers for us.  Nothing like that ever happened before, and it made possible our eternity; the greatest gift we’ll ever have.  We should be astounded!

And then, like the apostles, we need to get on with it.  Because the Ascension has very specific meaning for our mission.  I think we get three directions in today’s feast.  First, Christ promises us that he will be with us always.  That’s what Jesus says to the disciples – and to us! – in the very last words of the very last verse of the very last chapter of Matthew’s Gospel: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”  This is such an essential point of faith for us to get: Jesus our Lord will be with us every day, every moment, right up to the end of the age.

Jesus is present to us in three very specific ways.  First, he is present when we gather in his name. We reverence the presence of Christ in one another and can feel him present among us as we pray.  The whole reason we gather is because Christ is present when we gather.  Second,  we believe that Christ is present when we worship.  The Word of God, as it is proclaimed in the Church, is not just a nice story or an interesting precept for life.  We believe that God is present in the very proclaiming of the Word itself.  And the Sacraments themselves make Christ present when we celebrate them in worship, and we experience that most perfectly when we celebrate the Eucharist and receive the body and blood of our Lord in Communion.  Christ is present to us when we worship.  Finally, we believe that Christ is present when we serve.  Deep down, we know that the really great things we do are never the result of our own efforts alone.  So it’s not us feeding the hungry, it’s Christ.  It’s not us teaching a religious education class, it’s Christ.  It’s not us doing any of this, it’s always Christ, whose hands and feet and lips we have become by the virtue of our baptism.  Christ is present when we serve in his name.  Christ is eternally present to us in many beautiful ways.

The second application of the Ascension to our lives is that Jesus has gone to heaven to prepare a place for us.  He goes to heaven to pave the way, because we had lost the way, affected as we all are by original sin and by the sins of our life.  Since we did not know the way, he prepares it for us: opening the door, so to speak, and greeting us.  So we believers who have forged a relationship with our Lord can now look to him to see how to get to that heavenly reward.  All we have to do is follow, and we will find ourselves in that place God intended for us from the beginning.

And the third application of this feast in our lives is that the Christian Mission has been entrusted to our hands.  Christ has ascended into heaven, he has returned to the Father.  So, yes, on this feast of the Ascension of the Lord, we are rightly struck speechless, but now it’s time for us to take up the Cross, to preach the Word in our words and actions, and to witness to the joy of Christ’s presence among us.  If people are ever going to come to know Christ, if they are ever going to be challenged to grow in their faith, if they are ever going to know that there is something greater than themselves, they’re going to have to see that witness in other people, and it needs to be us.  We have to be transparent in our living so that people won’t be caught up on us, but will come through us to see Jesus, to see the Father, to experience the Spirit.  We are the ones commanded to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…”  The mission is entrusted to us now.

The speechlessness has to be over.  The Psalmist tells us that God mounts his throne to shouts of joy.  We must be joyous in living our life as Christians, assured of God’s abiding presence until the end of time, looking forward to our heavenly reward, and living the mission for all to see.  We must no longer be speechless, but instead be a blare of trumpets for the Lord!