Thursday of the Fourth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

“Don’t shoot the messenger!” That’s our colloquial way of saying that the words we speak to someone come from someone else; they are not our ideas. Most of us have probably said that to someone at some time when giving them bad news.

But that doesn’t work for we who are followers of Christ. Yes, we are messengers. The Greek word for messenger is “angeloi” from which we get our English word, “angel.” Angels are messengers sent by God to communicate something specific to humankind. For example, we’ve seen the archangel Gabriel herald the coming of Christ to a young woman named Mary. A whole host of angels heralded the birth of the Savior to shepherds working in the fields. The letter to the Hebrews tells us not to neglect hospitality, for we may be entertaining angels. And Jesus tells us today, “whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”

We are all sent, brothers and sisters in Christ, to be messengers. We have received the Gospel and have been schooled in it through our participation in the Mass and our education in faith. We are not angels, nor do we become angels after we die, because angels are a different species of creation than humankind. But we are in a sense angeloi; we are messengers who are sent by God to bring the Good News, the Gospel, to all those who need to hear it. We have to preach it every day, maybe not by standing on a soapbox, but definitely by our living of the message ourselves.

Just as St. Paul courageously preached the truth in the synagogue in today’s first reading, we have to be ready to courageously share our faith in whatever way God calls us, wherever God puts us, to whoever God gives us. The Psalmist has it right today, as always, when he says, “Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord!” We must always sing the praises of God who gives us everything we have and everything we could ever hope for. Singing those praises with our lives makes our message every bit as beautiful as the choirs of angels!

May our guardian angels show us the way to be angeloi for the glory of God!

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Ordinary Time

I don’t have to tell you, I am sure, that life on earth can be pretty uncertain on a daily basis.  Wars being fought all over the globe, terrorism and natural disasters, disrespect for human life, antagonism toward Christ-like values, all of this makes us feel pretty uncertain, at best.  Add to that the stuff that affects us directly: illness, death of a loved one, unemployment, family difficulties, our own sins – all of this may find us asking the question from time to time, “Where is God in all this?”

That’s why it’s so good to hear Jesus say today:
My sheep hear my voice;

I know them, and they follow me.

I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.

No one can take them out of my hand.

This does not, of course, mean that life is going to be magically easier for us, or that we won’t still be challenged in this world.  But it does give us confidence that we are on the right track, and that our ways are being guarded.  And with this confidence, we are expected then to be disciples.  We are expected to go forth and do what God asks of us, ministering to those in need, reaching out to the broken, preaching the Good News just by the way that we live our life.
We can live and preach the Gospel with confidence, we can be called Christians as our brothers and sisters in the first reading were for the first time, knowing that God has our back.  Whatever we may suffer in this life for the sake of Christ will more than be rewarded in the life to come.  And the good works we do here on earth, as small as they may seem to us in the face of such adversity, are never for nothing: God takes our efforts and makes them huge advances in the battle for souls.
Jesus says that the Father is greater than all, and that all of us, safe in the Father’s hands, can never be taken from him.  Praise God for his providence and mercy and protection today.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Jesus uses a very familiar image today to illustrate the significance of following one’s vocation in life.  He talks about a shepherd, which in an agrarian culture like his own, would have immediately made sense to his hearers.  In a suburban place in the modern world, it loses some of its immediacy, but I still think Jesus’ illustration is a good one.

We know basically what a shepherd does, right?  He cares for a flock of sheep.  The shepherd has an important task: he must keep the flock healthy and safe, so that the flock’s owners will be able to get a good price for them at market.  He has to find good grazing grounds so the sheep can be fed, must see that they stay together and get to market, and has to keep them safe from predators.  Jesus makes a distinction between good and bad shepherds: those who actually care for the sheep as opposed to hired hands who don’t really care.  When a predator comes along, the hired hand takes off, leaving the sheep in harm’s way.  But not the good shepherd: that shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
Of course, Jesus illustrates this beautifully in his own life, and we’ve seen that in these Easter days.  The sheep are God’s people, the danger is sin and death, the hired hands who didn’t really care about the sheep were the religious leaders of the time, and the Good Shepherd is Jesus, who laid down his life for God’s people in his crucifixion.  That’s what good shepherds do: they give their lives for the flock.
So here’s the take-away: we are all called to be good shepherds.  We all have a flock.  For a priest, that flock is his parish.  For a religious brother or sister, that flock is the community in which they live.  For parents, it’s their families.  You get the idea.  But the important detail is that the task is the same: to save their flock from all danger of the foe.  The foe remains sin and death, brought about by the predator who is the devil.  The vocation of us shepherds is to get the sheep of our flock to heaven, which is a participation in the vocation of Jesus the Good Shepherd.
Which means we have to be true to our promises. For priests, that would be preaching the Gospel faithfully, not just telling people what they want to hear, but challenging them to grow in their relationship with Christ.  For parents that means being faithful in their marriages and diligently bringing their children up in the practice of the faith, as they promised at their child’s baptism.
What’s important to know is this: all of our vocations work together.  If we’re all faithful to our promises, God can do his work in us and through us.  For example, when parents faithfully bring their children to Mass, and priests faithfully preach the Gospel, then children can grow up with a relationship with our Lord that will see them through whatever life throws at them, and can bring them one day to their goal of eternal life.
To all of this, there are many distractions, wolves that threaten to scatter and destroy the flock.  But if we are good shepherds, then we can count on the guidance of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, to bless our efforts and lead us all to life.

Friday of the Third Week of Easter

Today’s readings

Saul is proof that God’s ways are not our ways.  How is it that God would pick for one of his chief Apostles a man who imprisoned and murdered the followers of the Christian Way?  That had to surprise even, and perhaps especially Saul, whose life was turned completely upside-down.  Poor Ananias had to be quaking in his boots to carry out this command of the Lord.  But thankfully both Paul and Ananias were obedient to the Lord’s command, and we are the ones who have benefited from that.  Not only has the Word of God been passed on through their faithfulness, but we see in their lives that obedience to God’s will, while it may not always make sense, is the way that true disciples live.

And true discipleship is beginning to be an issue in the Bread of Life Discourse from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. We’ve been hearing it all week. Jesus has fed the five thousand, and they continue to clamor after him. Only he’s not giving them bread and fish the last few days. Now he’s challenging them to eat his Flesh and drink his Blood – this is Saint John’s version of the giving of the Eucharist. They aren’t getting it and they’re not going to stick around and hear much more of it – at least many of them are getting ready to leave.

But God’s ways are infinitely richer than our little intelligence and inadequate imagination and faltering faith. God wants so much more for us than we’re ready to ask for – he wants to give us his very self to fill us up and make us whole and bring us to heaven. The question is, will we let him obscure our vision so that we can see clearly (as he did for Saint Paul), or put us in the firing line so that we can really live (as he did for Ananias), or die for us so that we can live with him, as he did for his disciples and for us? Are we ready to have our lives turned upside-down so that we can get back on track?

Because that’s the only way we’re really going to live.

Thursday of the Third Week of Easter

Today’s readings

Being in the right place at the right time isn’t usually a coincidence.  Far more often than we realize, it’s the work of the Holy Spirit.  Certainly that is the case in today’s first reading.  How else would we explain an angel directing Philip to be on a road at the very same time as the Ethiopian eunuch passed by, reading a passage from the prophet Isaiah that referred to Jesus?  Seizing the moment, Philip proclaims Jesus to him in a way that was powerful enough and moving enough that, on seeing some water as they continued on the journey, the eunuch begged to be baptized.

The same is true for those who were fortunate enough to hear Jesus proclaim the Bread of Life discourse that we’ve been reading in our Gospel readings these past days.  Having been fed by a few loaves and fishes when they were physically hungry, they now come to find Jesus who longs to fill them up not just physically but also, and more importantly, spiritually.  Their hunger put them in the right place at the right time.

What I think is important for us to get today is that we are always in the right place at the right time, spiritually speaking.  Wherever we find ourselves is the place that we are directed by the Holy Spirit to find God.  Wherever we find ourselves is the place that we are directed by the Holy Spirit to proclaim God.  And so we may be called upon to find God in the midst of peace, or chaos, or any situation.  We never know how God may feed us in those situations.  And we may indeed be called upon to proclaim God in those same peaceful, or chaotic, situations.  Because we never know when there will be someone like an Ethiopian eunuch there, aching to be filled with Christ’s presence and called to a new life.

It is no coincidence that we are where we are, when we are.  The Spirit always calls on us to find our God and proclaim him as Lord in every moment and every situation.

The Third Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

“You are witnesses of these things.”

That is what Jesus tells the disciples at the close of today’s Gospel reading. He is almost ready to ascend to the Father, and so he takes care to make sure that the disciples are ready for the mission. They are the ones who will have to testify to the death and resurrection of Christ, and to preach forgiveness of sins in his name to every person on earth.

And we can see that the disciples did indeed take up this mission. In the first reading from Acts, Peter speaks to the Jews and tells them what Christ suffered for all of us. He emphatically urges them to repent and to believe in the Gospel. Far from the frightened, panic-stricken deserters they were on Holy Thursday, they have become the Apostles they were called to be. Peter says it very clearly, echoing Jesus’ words at the end of the Gospel:

“Of this, we are witnesses.”

And so we are the hearers of the message now. We too, brothers and sisters in Christ, are witnesses of these things. We may not have seen the events unfold in front of us, but we have seen them in the Liturgy, and we believe that our celebration of the Liturgy is not some simple re-enactment of the events of our salvation, but in a very real sense is a participation in the death and resurrection of Christ in our own day.

We are the witnesses now. And people have to see us preaching with the way that we live our lives. We have to preach it by going to Mass faithfully, by keeping the commandments, by being people of integrity and fairness at our jobs or in our schools, by reaching out to those who are poor, needy and marginalized, by giving ourselves to others whenever, wherever, and however we can.

We are witnesses of these things. The question is, will others witness Christ in us?

The Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy)

Today’s readings

Today, on the eighth day of Easter, we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday, which was instituted by Pope Saint John Paul II, of blessed memory. On this Sunday, we remember that the resurrection of our Lord was an act of intense mercy for us sinners, obliterating the power of sin and giving us the possibility of life eternal, if we are willing to live the Gospel and turn away from our sins.

And even though His Holiness did not choose the Gospel reading we have for today, I don’t think he could have chosen a better one to illustrate God’s Divine Mercy. Today, Saint John recounts the evening when the disciples were together, save for Thomas, pretty much just trying to figure out what to do next. So far that day, they had come to find the tomb empty, and Mary Magdalene reported that she had seen the Lord alive. Obviously they needed to process what was happening.

But they were in fear. They knew that they could easily suffer the same fate as the Lord, and feared that the Jews were hunting them down. So they meet together in perhaps the same upper room in which they had eaten the Last Supper, with the doors locked for fear of their pursuers, and they’re talking things over. Suddenly, into their confusion, the Lord appears, bringing his gift of peace, and bestowing on them the Holy Spirit. Immediately, they come to believe and go out to do what believers do: tell the story.

Which brings us to poor Saint Thomas, who, for whatever reason, was not with them when the Lord appeared. It’s important to know that the only reason the others believed was because they had received the Holy Spirit: it takes that gift of Divine Mercy to come to understand our Lord’s message. Since Thomas had not received that gift, he’s at a different place on the faith journey than the rest of them. So before we get too hard on “doubting Thomas,” I think he should get a bit of a break here.

Then our Lord comes and gives him what he asked for: a direct, personal, intimate encounter, in which his questions are answered and he is able to hold his Lord and come to full belief. Here, he too receives the Spirit, and can then go out to preach the Gospel to those our Lord entrusts to him.

I think we see Divine Mercy here in a few different ways. First, we see it in our Lord’s wounds. He truly suffered in the flesh for us, dying an agonizing death on the Cross, that death that paid the price for our own sins. He paid the price for us, and he paid it in a horrible, painful, public way. No one dies for those he doesn’t love, and so we see in our Lord’s wounds his immense Divine Mercy for us.

We see Divine Mercy in the gift of the Holy Spirit. It takes the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which we receive in baptism and confirmation, to embark on a life of faith. Confusion reigns where the Spirit has not been received: that was the case for the disciples including Saint Thomas, and it is the case for all of us. Without the Holy Spirit, we can’t know God or enter into relationship with him. But thanks to his Divine Mercy, we have the gift of the Holy Spirit at our disposal.

And finally, we see Divine Mercy in the interaction with Saint Thomas. Jesus could have left Thomas in his doubt. He wasn’t there with the others, he refused to believe, so that’s that. But our Lord wouldn’t – couldn’t – do that. Instead, he pursues Thomas, and gives him what he needs to believe. He does that with us too, never giving up on us. That’s Divine Mercy.

Here’s the message though. Like our Lord’s other gifts, Divine Mercy isn’t meant to be received and then kept in a neat little box on our prayer shelf. Our world is desperate for God’s Divine Mercy. There are hungry to be fed, there are people who need to know the Lord, there is terror and war and animosity that needs to be drenched in God’s love. So we disciples, who received the gift of the Holy Spirit as a direct outpouring of God’s love, need to take that Divine Mercy to a world that needs it so desperately.

Holy God, holy mighty one, holy immortal one, have mercy on us and on the whole world.

Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of the Lord

Today’s readings

“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 seems to say, “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 perhaps 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 grace, 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!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night

Today’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.

During this Triduum journey, I have been reflecting in my homilies on the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. I’ve talked about the fact that this is not a popular thing to do because we as a society are not big on suffering. If we put a sign out on Chicago Avenue that said, “Come suffer with us,” I’m pretty sure we’d be all alone here in church! We certainly do suffer in this life, but no one wants it – as well we shouldn’t. The problem is that we tend to gloss over it, not acknowledge it, be embarrassed by it. Suffering becomes the elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge, and that’s too bad, really.

Certainly it seems odd that I would continue to talk about the Cross on this holy night. I mean, we’ve moved on, haven’t we? We came here for resurrection and want to get on with our lives. Just like we tend to rush through our grieving of loved ones – to our own psychological and spiritual peril, by the way – so too we want to rush through our Lent and particularly our Good Friday and Holy Saturday, so that we can eat our Peeps and chocolate bunnies and call it a day.

But we can’t, right? If we’ve prayed well this Lent and particularly in these Triduum days, we know how we got here to this moment. We know that we don’t get an Easter Sunday without a Good Friday, that we can’t have resurrection if there hasn’t been death, that we can’t have salvation if there hasn’t been a sacrifice.

And there sure was a sacrifice. Our Lord suffered a brutal, ugly death between two hardened criminals, taking the place of a revolutionary. He was beaten, humiliated, mistreated and nails were pounded into his flesh, that flesh that he borrowed from us. He hung in agony for three hours and finally, when all was finished, he cried out in anguish and handed over his spirit. The veil of the temple was torn in two, there was a tremor in the earth, and an eclipse of the sun. And no wonder, the light of the Messiah had been extinguished on the Cross.

Placed in the tomb, he descended into hell. Collecting the souls of the blessed ones of old, he waited while earth mourned and disciples scattered and everyone wondered what happened to this Christ.

But then came the morning. The Sabbath was over, and the sun was rising in the east on the first day of the week, and the women came with spices to prepare our Lord for burial. But they couldn’t: he has been raised! He is not here! Our Lord is risen and death is defeated! The menacing, ugly Cross has become the altar of salvation! The instrument of horror has become the Cross of glory, and we can do no less than praise our God!

Saint John Damascene reflected on this salvific reality. He writes, “By nothing else except the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ has death been brought low: The sin of our first parent destroyed, hell plundered, resurrection bestowed, the power given us to despise the things of this world, even death itself, the road back to the former blessedness made smooth, the gates of paradise opened, our nature seated at the right hand of God and we made children and heirs of God. By the cross all these things have been set aright…It is a seal that the destroyer may not strike us, a raising up of those who lie fallen, a support for those who stand, a staff for the infirm, a crook for the shepherded, a guide for the wandering, a perfecting of the advanced, salvation for soul and body, a deflector of all evils, a cause of all goods, a destruction of sin, a plant of resurrection, and a tree of eternal life.”

It’s so important that we enter into Lent and the Triduum every year. Not just because we need to be called back from our sinfulness to the path of life – yes, there is that, but it’s not primary here. What is so important is that we see that the Cross is our path too. In this life we will have trouble: our Savior promises us that. But the Cross is what sees him overcome the world and all the suffering it brings us. We will indeed suffer in this life, but thanks be to God, if we join ourselves to him, if we take up our own crosses with faithfulness, then we can merit a share in our Lord’s resurrection, that reality that fulfills all of salvation history that we’ve heard in tonight’s readings.

In these Triduum days, we have seen the Cross call us to service, we’ve seen it stand for our suffering, and tonight we’ve seen it help us on the way to salvation. The cross is brutal and ugly and harsh. But it’s also beautiful, if we have eyes to see it.

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.

He is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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