The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today’s readings

This feast is one of the reasons I love the Blessed Virgin. Having given her fiat – her “yes” – to God, she now shows concern for her elder relative who is also with child. She goes to visit her in a great act of hospitality, which is one of the virtues Paul admonished the Romans to follow in our first reading today. Perhaps because of her faith and her great concern for Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s own child begins to rejoice in the womb, recognizing his Lord and the great woman who would bring him to human life.

While we don’t have an exact account of what happened at that visit, we do have the Church’s recollection of its spirit, as told through Luke the Evangelist. The whole feeling of this Gospel story is one of great joy, which is perhaps why this is one of the joyful mysteries of the holy Rosary. Both Elizabeth and Mary represent the Church in the telling of the story. Because just as Elizabeth was moved by the faith and generosity of Mary, so the Church continues to be edified by her example of faith and charity. And just as Mary rejoiced in what God was doing in her life, so the Church continues to rejoice at the mighty acts of God in every person, time and place.

The Gospel reading ends with the great song called the Magnificat which is Mary’s song of praise to God for the wonders he has done throughout all time, but also in her own life. We too should make that our own song as we continue to be overjoyed by the great acts of God, shepherding us all through our own lives, and intervening in our world and society to bring grace to a world darkened by sin. We, too, can pray with Mary, “From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.”

Memorial Day

Readings: Isaiah 32:15-18 | Psalm 72 | Matthew 5:1-12a
Mass of Peace and Justice

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 these days, 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, righteousness, and freedom. These have been people who have given everything, have made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.

On this day, I think it would be a mistake to glorify warfare. I don’t think that is the point of this day, or is even 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 may not 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 Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Today’s readings

During World War II, the officers of the Third Reich’s secret service forcefully recruited many 12- and 13-year-old boys into the Junior Gestapo. The harshly treated boys were given only inhumane jobs that they were to perform without rest or complaint. After the war ended, most had lost contact with their families and wandered aimlessly, without food or shelter. As part of an aid program to rebuild postwar Germany, many of these youths were housed in tent cities. There, doctors and nurses worked with them in an attempt to restore their physical, mental and emotional health.

Many of the boys would awaken several times during the night screaming in terror. But one doctor had an idea for handling their fears. After serving the boys a hearty meal, he’d tuck them into bed with a piece of bread in their hands that they were told to save until morning. The boys began to sleep soundly after that because, after so many years of hunger and uncertainty as to their next meal, they finally had the assurance of food for the next day.

On the last day of my dad’s life, I gave him Holy Communion for what would be the last time. He was able to pray with us, and was so grateful to receive the Sacrament of Jesus’ own Body and Blood. We call that last Communion Viaticum which, in Latin, means “bread for the journey.” Like the former Junior Gestapo boys who slept soundly because they knew they had food for the next day, my dad was able to rest in Christ knowing that he would be able to eat at the heavenly banquet table.

On this feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, we are called to take comfort in the many ways God feeds us. We know that when we pray “give us this day our daily bread,” we will receive all that we need and more, because our God loves us and cares for us. But to really trust in God’s care can sometimes be a bit of a scary moment.

It was certainly scary for the disciples, who asked Jesus to “dismiss the crowds” so that they could go into the surrounding cities and get something to eat. They were afraid for the crowds because they had come to the desert, where there was nothing to eat or drink. They were afraid for the crowds because it would soon be dark and then it would be dangerous to travel into the surrounding cities to find refuge and sustenance. And, if they were to really admit it, they were afraid of the crowds, because all they had to offer them were five loaves of bread and two fish – hardly a meal for Jesus and the Twelve, let alone five thousand.

But Jesus isn’t having any of that. Fear is no match for God’s mercy and care and providence, so instead of dismissing the crowds, he tells the disciples to gather the people in groups of about fifty. Then he takes the disciples’ meager offering, with every intent of supplying whatever it lacked. He blesses their offerings, transforming them from an impoverished snack to a rich, nourishing meal. He breaks the bread, enabling all those present to partake of it, and finally he gives that meal to the crowd, filling their hungering bodies and souls with all that they need and then some. Caught in a deserted place with darkness encroaching and practically nothing to offer in the way of food, Jesus overcomes every obstacle and feeds the crowd with abundance. It’s no wonder they followed him to this out of the way place.

The disciples had to be amazed at this turn of events, and perhaps it was an occasion for them of coming to know Jesus and his ministry in a deeper way. They were fed not just physically by this meal, but they were fed in faith as well. In this miraculous meal, they came to know that their Jesus could be depended on to keep them from danger and to transform the bleakest of moments into the most joyous of all festivals. But even as their faith moved to a deeper level, the challenge of that faith was cranked up a notch as well. “Give them some food yourselves,” Jesus said to them. Having been fed physically and spiritually by their Master, they were now charged with feeding others in the very same way.

Christ has come to supply every need. In Jesus, nothing is lacking and no one suffers want. All the Lord asks of the five thousand is what he also asks of us each Sunday: to gather as a sacred assembly, to unite in offering worship with Jesus who is our High Priest, to receive Holy Communion, and to go forth to share the remaining abundance of our feast with others who have yet to be fed. After the crowd had eaten the meal, that was the time for them to go out into the surrounding villages and farms – not to find something to eat, but to share with everyone they met the abundance that they had been given. So it is for us. After we are fed in the Eucharist, we must then necessarily go forth in peace to love and serve the Lord by sharing our own abundance with every person we meet.

You might do that by participating in a small faith community or a Bible study, sharing the Scriptures and our own living faith with your brothers and sisters. Maybe you would do that by becoming an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, and dedicating yourselves to the ministry of distributing the precious gift of the Lord’s own Body and Blood each Sunday, or even volunteering to bring Holy Communion to the sick and homebound. But you could also do that by volunteering with our food pantry. Then too, sharing our abundance of spiritual blessing doesn’t have to be very elaborate. You might just bring a meal to a friend going through a hard time or visit a neighbor who is a shut-in. Jesus is the font of every blessing, and it is up to us to share that blessing with everyone in every way we can. We too must hear and answer those challenging words of Jesus: “Give them some food yourselves.”

What we celebrate today is that our God is dependable and that we can rely on him for our needs. Just as he was dependable to feed the vast crowd in that out-of the-way place, so he too can reach out to us, no matter where we are on the journey, and feed us beyond our wildest imaginings. Just as the Junior Gestapo boys were able to rest easy as they clutched that bread for the next day, so we too can rest easy, depending on our God to give us all that we need to meet the challenges of tomorrow and beyond. The challenge to give others something to eat need not be frightening because we know that the source of the food is not our own limited offerings, but the great abundance of God himself. We need not fear any kind of hunger – our own or that of others – because it’s ultimately not about us or what we can offer, but what God can do in and through us.

In our Eucharist today, the quiet time after Communion is our time to gather up the wicker baskets of our abundance, to reflect on what God has given us and done for us and done with us. We who receive the great meal of his own Body and Blood must be resolved to give from those wicker baskets in our day-to-day life, feeding all those people God has given us in our lives. We do all this in remembrance of Christ, proclaiming the death of the Lord until he comes again.

May the Body and Blood of Christ keep us all safe for eternal life.

Tuesday of the Eighth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

In these last couple of days, Jesus is taking the time to set things right about what it means to be rich and famous. Today’s Gospel reading comes right after yesterday’s report of the rich young man. As you remember, Jesus looked at the young man and loved him, and then challenged him to give up his possessions and follow him. But the young man went away sad, for he had many possessions. To this, Peter replies, “We have given up everything and followed you.” I don’t know if this is boasting, or frustration, or some mix of the two. But Jesus responds to his assertion by telling him that now, in the present age, those who give up everything will receive so much more.

I don’t think Jesus was trying to put forth a prosperity gospel here, though. I really don’t think he was saying they’d be rich and famous in the present age. What he was saying is that they would be rich in what matters to God, rich in the Holy Spirit, rich in love and mercy. And it’s that last line that brings it all into focus: “many that are first will be last, and the last will be first.” By being the least, giving up everything, they will be first in the Kingdom of God, which was and is here among God’s people.

So for all of us, rich young men, or overzealous disciples, or just plain folks who want to inherit eternal life, Jesus looks at us and loves us, and calls us to give up everything that’s in the way, so that we can be the last who will be first. What is it that we have to let go of today so that we can be first in the Kingdom of God?

Thursday of the Seventh Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Scriptures extol the virtue of poverty of spirit, which is perhaps one of the more difficult virtues to embrace and nurture.  Saint James illustrates how things of this world, specifically the pursuit of riches, can be not only a powerful distraction from the spiritual life, but can also leave one complicit in serious sin.  In the Gospel, Jesus exhorts us not to let anything – not even the members of our own body – to get in the way.  We are called to be salt in the world; to flavor our interactions with others such that they see the attraction of life in Christ.

But if we’re ever going to accomplish it, we have to be poor in spirit.  We have to get over ourselves and shed whatever takes us off the right path.  If our hands or feet or eyes lead us down the wrong path, we have to humble ourselves and get rid of that obstacle so that we can salt the world.

Possessing the kingdom of heaven is our goal; in fact it’s why we were created.  That’s the ultimate destination on the spiritual journey.  To get there, we can’t be content with the things that get in the way.  We have to pluck out the errant eye, to lop off the wayward limb.  We have to give up worldly riches, especially those garnered at the expense of the poor, and go all in for the kingdom of God.

Tuesday of the Seventh Week of Easter

Today’s readings

Today’s first reading and Gospel present a kind of wrap-up to the lives of St. Paul and Jesus, respectively. They both have completed the mission for which they had been sent, and both are now giving the mission back to God who would continue it as He alone saw fit. Paul’s mission had been one of conversion, beginning with his own, and then reaching out to the Gentiles he met traveling far and wide. Now he did not know what would happen to him, only that the Holy Spirit kept telling him it was to be an end filled with hardship, from which Paul refused to shrink.

Jesus, one with the Father from the beginning, had come from the Father and was now going back to the Father. He brought God’s love to bear on the aberrations of sin and death and had drawn disciples into the mission to continue the work. It could not continue unless he returned to the Father and sent the Holy Spirit upon them. Doing that has brought the Gospel into every nation and into the lives of millions. He too faced an end filled with hardship, from which he refused to shrink.

We disciples will come to our own ends as well. Will we too be able to give the mission back to the Father, confident that we’ve done it as best we could, and confident that it would be continued as God saw fit? Have our days sometimes been filled with hardship, and if so, have we also refused to shrink from it? We disciples are part of the mission that God has in the world. We take it for a time and will eventually have to hand it back over. Please God, may we all be able to do so with confidence that God’s will has been done in us!

The Ascension of the Lord

Today’s readings

For the early Apostles and disciples, today’s feast had to be a kind of “now what?” experience for them. Think about what they’ve been through. Their Lord had been betrayed by one of their friends, he had been through a farce of a trial and put to death in a horrible, ignoble way, they had been hiding in fear thinking they might be next, they had questioned what they were supposed to do without their Lord, and then they witness the Resurrection: Christ walks among them for a time, appearing to them and making himself known. They had seen redemption of a way of life they almost had abandoned, and now, on this feast of the Ascension, their Lord is leaving them again. In our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, you can almost feel the amazement and desperation they are experiencing as they stare up into the heavens, incredulous that their Lord is gone, again.

So once again, God sends two messengers, two men in white garments, to set them straight. God had sent two men in dazzling garments to the women at the tomb on the day of the Resurrection as well. That time, the men reassured the women that the Lord had not been moved or stolen, but had risen from the dead. This time, the men appear to the Apostles, assuring them that the Lord would return in the same way as he had just departed from their sight. Both times, it was the same kind of messengers, with the same kind of hopeful message. Go forward, don’t worry, God is in control.

One of the great themes of Catholic theology is the idea of “already, and not yet.” Basically, that means that we disciples of Christ already have a share in the life of God and the promise of heaven, but we are not yet there. So we who believe in Jesus and live our faith every day have the hope of heaven before us, even if we are not home yet. And this hope isn’t just some “iffy” kind of thing: it’s not “I hope I’ll go to heaven one day.” No, it’s the promise that because of the salvation we have in Christ, we who are faithful will one day live and reign with him. This gives us hope in the midst of the sorrows that we experience in this world.

Another great theme of Catholic theology is that our God is transcendent, but also immanent. Transcendent means that our God is higher than the heavens, more lofty than our thoughts and dreams, beyond anything we can imagine. Whatever we say about God, like “God is love” or “God is good” – those things only begin to scratch the surface of who God is, because God is transcendent beyond anything our limited words can describe. But our God is also immanent. God is not some far off entity that has brought the world into existence and set the events of our lives in motion and then drops back to observe things from afar. No, our God is one who walks among us and knows our sorrow and our pain and celebrates our joy. Saint Augustine said that God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. Our God may indeed be mysterious and beyond us, but he is also the one we can reach out and touch. If that weren’t so, the Eucharist would be pretty meaningless.

As you can see, Catholic theology is generally speaking not exclusive. We are not either already sharing in the promise or not yet sharing in it, but we are “already and not yet.” Our God is not either transcendent or immanent, but both transcendent and immanent. These two great theological themes come to a kind of crossroads here on this feast of the Ascension.

Today, as Christ ascends into heaven, our share in the life of God and the promise of heaven is sealed. We have hope of eternal life because our Lord has gone before us to prepare a place for us. If he had not gone, we could never have shared in this life. So, although Jesus has left the apostles yet again, they can rejoice because they know that the promise is coming to fulfillment. We do not possess it yet, because we are not home yet, but we share in it already, because Christ is our promise.

Today, as Christ ascends into heaven, he once again, with the Father, is transcendent, because we, along with the Apostles, can no longer see him. But he remains immanent by his promise to be with us always. Again, I will quote St. Augustine who said of Christ that “He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven. The fact that he was in heaven even while he was on earth is borne out by his own statement: No one has ever ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven.” St. Augustine teaches that the notion of time is that everything is present to God all at once. This explains how our celebration of the Eucharist in a few minutes brings us to Calvary at the moment when Jesus gave his life for us. And it explains how Jesus can ascend into heaven and yet remain among us. Time is a limitation for us humans, but not for God who created time in the first place.

All of this theology can be heady stuff, but what it boils down to is this: because Jesus died, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, we now have the hope of heaven and of sharing in the very life of God. Even though we do not possess heaven yet, we know that it belongs to all who have faith in Christ and live that faith every day. And even though we do not see Jesus walking among us, he is still absolutely present among us and promises to be with us forever. The preface to the Eucharistic prayer which I will sing in a few minutes makes this very clear; it says:

Mediator between God and man,
judge of the world and Lord of hosts,
he ascended not to distance himself from our lowly state
but that we, his members, might be confident of following
where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.

Jesus, having explained the Scriptures to his Apostles yet again, tells them “You are witnesses of these things.” And so they don’t have the luxury of just standing there, staring up into the sky for hours, dejected and crushed because the One who had been their hope had disappeared. No, as the Gospel tells us today, they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God.” They are witnesses, “clothed with power from on high,” and they must be filled with the hope and joy of the resurrection and ascension of the Lord.

We disciples are witnesses of these things too. We must witness to a world filled with violence and oppression and sadness that our God promises life without end for all those who believe in him. And we have that hope already, even though not yet. We must witness to a world languishing in the vapidity of relativism and individualism and New Age Oprah and Dr. Phil philosophy that it is Jesus Christ, the Lord of All, who is one with us in heaven, and present among us on earth, who fulfills our hopes and longings and will never leave us. We must be witnesses to all these things, living with great joy, continually praising God because Christ’s ascension is our exaltation. We too might hear those men in dazzling white garments speak God’s words of hope to us: go forward, don’t worry, God is in control.