The Third Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

How often have you said something that began with “I’ll be happy when…”?  You know, “I’ll be happy when I’m done paying for the kids’ college tuition;” “I’ll be happy when I get that promotion;” “I’ll be happy when I lose that last ten pounds;” “I’ll be happy when I can afford that new car…”  We’ve all done it, we’ve all set our hopes for happiness on some future event or accomplishment.  But then it gets there, or it doesn’t, and we’re not as happy as we’d like to be, so we look for happiness in something else.  Today’s Liturgy of the Word tells us that we’re doing it wrong.  We have to learn that we’re supposed to be happy in the journey.

Listen to what the Psalmist says today: “You will show me the path to life, abounding joy in your presence, the delights at your right hand forever.”  Abounding joy happens along the path to life, at God’s right hand, who accompanies us on the journey.  I’ve been thinking a lot about journeys lately.  Obviously, my journey is taking me a bit southwest of here in June, and so that is always in the back of my consciousness, with its mix of sadness and fear and excitement and expectation – that’s one journey.  I’ve also been on WeightWatchers since January, and they are always talking about the journey to being healthy, and all of the steps it takes to get there.  So journeying has been really up front and foremost in my mind these days.

Well, today’s Gospel finds two of Jesus’ disciples on a journey Jerusalem, where a lot of crazy stuff just went down, to Emmaus.  Along the way, they are discussing what had been going on, and we can just imagine how their minds had to be reeling!  For those of us who know the story, it’s pretty incredible.  But for them it had to have been mind blowing.  They were never expecting anything like this.  But here they were, walking along, discussing how Jesus’ death and resurrection had changed everything in just a few short days.

And into that experience, as they journeyed along the road, Jesus appears.  They don’t get that it’s Jesus, though, probably because his body looked different, more radiant, after the resurrection.  So along the way, he explains how all the scriptures foretold all that had happened to their friend, who happened to be talking to them right then.  But they still don’t get it.  So after they stop for the evening and invite him to dinner, they finally recognize him in the breaking of the bread.  All of this, I think, is very interesting to us who are on the journey to be with the Lord and delight at his right hand forever.

Because we’re all on a journey, brothers and sisters.  We are never at home in this world, as nice as it is.  We’re supposed to be in heaven, where there will be happiness forever.  But we can still seek reasonable happiness here on earth, and I believe we will find it if we just rejoice a little in the journey.  But to really enjoy the journey, we have to enter into it with our whole hearts and souls.  We can’t be wandering off the path and looking for happiness in all those things I mentioned at the beginning of my homily.  We have to focus on the journey from here to heaven if we ever really want to be happy in this life.

So how do we do that?  Well, I think our Gospel story gives us some clues.  The first thing is to keep moving on the journey.  If God has called you to do something, go somewhere, try something, change something, then do that thing!  When we stop going because we think we’re not good enough, or that someone else would be more worthy, or whatever excuse we have, then we’re selling God short.  Because the truth is we are not good enough, all by ourselves.  We’re not the most worthy.  But, and this is very important to know, brothers and sisters, God can call whoever he wants to do whatever he wants done.  It’s not about you or me or who’s doing it.  God is in charge, always and forever, and he will always give you what you need to do what he’s called you to do.  So keep going.

The second clue is we don’t go it alone.  There were two disciples going to Emmaus, and into their journey, our Lord asserted himself.  He did promise that elsewhere in the Gospel: “Where two or three are gathered, there am I among you.”  Other people on the journey give us accountability.  They help to keep us on the right path.  And frankly, it’s more pleasant to journey with others.

The third clue is that we have to open ourselves up to the scriptures.  The scriptures aren’t just stories written for people thousands of years ago.  They are inspired by the Holy Spirit and intended as much for us as they were for our ancestors in faith.  You will be surprised how much the scriptures speak to you when you open them up on a regular basis.  Just a few verses a day is a great way to start, and it can really enliven your prayer.  The scriptures enlivened that journey with the disciples and made their hearts burn within them.  That can happen for us too, and it should.

The final clue comes in the breaking of the bread.  That one seems pretty obvious, but it was a real eye opener for those two disciples.  In the breaking of the bread, they saw the Lord.  We can too, every time we receive the Holy Eucharist.  Just as those disciples came to recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread, so it can be for us.  Filled with the grace of Holy Communion, maybe we can recognize our Lord with fresh eyes and truly see him in our brothers and sisters.  Maybe we will see our Lord in the faces of the needy when we come to serve them.  Maybe you will see him in the faces of your children as you teach them and correct them and love them into the kingdom of God.  Maybe you will see him in the face of a coworker or friend who is going through a difficult time.  As we love those people the Lord puts in our paths, maybe we can see our Lord among us in a new way.

You’ve probably heard, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”  For us Catholics that’s half right.  Because yes, it is about the destination.  We certainly want to get to the ultimate happiness of heaven.  But it needs to be about the journey too.  Because it’s on the journey that we grow in our faith, and see our Lord walking with us.  The journey might be long and difficult, but it’s always blessed by our Lord if we choose to look for our happiness along the way.

Saint Mark, Evangelist

Today’s readings

We aren’t completely sure who St. Mark was.  He might have been the first bishop of Alexandria, Egypt.  Some scholars say he might have been the one described in chapter 14 of Mark’s Gospel, at the arrest of Jesus: “Now a young man followed him wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body. They seized him, but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked.”  But others question whether he ever saw Jesus in person at all.  We know that he was a companion of Peter and Paul in the missionary journeys, and that he was the first to write about Jesus’ life.  It is estimated that the Gospel of Mark was written around 60 or 70 AD, after the death of both Peter and Paul.  As you might expect since this was the first Gospel written, it is used as a source for both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels.

Whoever Mark really was, I think the key idea for this feast today is that he was one who willingly embodied the command of Jesus that we have in today’s Gospel reading: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.”  His missionary work, and his work as the Evangelist testify to his passion for the Gospel and his efforts to see that the whole world came to believe in Jesus.

What we celebrate on his feast day, though, is that the work of that command is far from complete.  There is so much of the world that has yet to hear of Jesus.  Some of them are in far off lands, others are in our workplaces, schools, and communities.  Because of that, it is imperative that we all continue the work of Mark and the other Evangelists.  We are the ones who have to testify to the Gospel in word and in deed, witnessing to what we believe in everything that we say and do.  Our life’s work is not complete until we are sure that those who know us also know the Lord in and through us.

“The favors of the LORD I will sing forever;” the Psalmist says today, “through all generations my mouth shall proclaim your faithfulness.”  May we, like St. Mark, sing of the Lord’s goodness in every moment of our lives.

Monday of the Second Week of Easter

Today’s readings

Today, after having completed the Easter Octave yesterday, we begin the second phase of our Easter celebration.  Now we begin the preparation for the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the first Apostles, and later to each Christian believer.

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

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

The Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday)

Today’s readings

I often wonder what brings people to Mass on the Second Sunday of Easter.  We had crowds of people here last Sunday, as you know, but things this Sunday are, perhaps a bit unfortunately, back to normal.  The Easter duty is done, and most people go back to their normal Sunday routines, whatever they may be.  But many of us still gather for worship this morning.  What is it that brings us here today?

Maybe our motives are grand ones.  We can’t get enough of the Word of God and his Real Presence in the Eucharist – I hope that’s the case!  Or maybe we need to be together with the community in order for our faith to make sense and our life to be on track.  Maybe we know that our presence in the worshipping community isn’t just about us, but rather about all of us being together, that there would be no community without all of us present.  Maybe you came to one of my Masses last Sunday and were struck with awe at the inspiring words I preached!

But maybe our motives aren’t quite so lofty.  Maybe, at some level, we’re here because of fear.  Fear that our lives aren’t going the way we’d like them to.  Fear that family problems are not getting resolved.  Fear that our jobs are unfulfilling or our relationships are in disarray.  Fear that our lives are empty spiritually, and we don’t know where to find our Lord.  Fear that missing Mass will lead us to hell.  Fear that if we don’t get out we’ll be lonely.  I think if we’re honest, there’s a little fear in all of us, and at some level, that fear leads us here.

And if you find that’s the case for you, you have ten patron saints locked up in that room.  They too had a great deal of fear.  Fear that they too might be led to the cross by the same people who took Jesus there.  There was certainly some reality to that fear, and I think we can all understand it.  But I also think it’s significant to realize that the Eleven, all of whom lived closely with Jesus for three years, were not yet able to overcome their fears and pursue the mission of Jesus.  Instead, they gather in a locked room, mourning their friend, confused about the empty tomb and stories of his appearances, and fearful for their own lives.  We whose lives are filled with fear at times definitely have the Apostles as our kindred spirits.

The truth is that, like the Apostles, it doesn’t matter what has gathered us here.  The important thing is that at least we are here.  At least in our fear we did not hide away and refuse to be brought into the light.  Because there are many who have left us, aren’t there?  Many have had enough of church scandals and have decided to take their spiritual business elsewhere.  Many have been hurt in all kinds of ways and have not found immediate healing in the Church.  Many have been influenced by the allurements of the world and the false comforts of pop psychology and have given up on a religion that makes demands of them.  Many have left us, but at least we are here, at least we have gathered, albeit in fear, albeit locked up in our own little rooms, but definitely in the path of our Lord who longs to be among us in our fear and to say, “Peace be with you.”

The peace that Jesus imparts is not just the absence of war or conflict in our lives.  It is instead a real peace, a peace from the inside of us out.  A peace that affects our body, mind and spirit.  A peace that brings us into communion with one another and most especially with God for whom we were created and redeemed.  The peace that the Ten had upon seeing their Risen Lord, the peace that Thomas had just one week later, is the same peace that our Risen Lord offers to all of us fearful disciples who gather together as a refuge against the storms and uncertainties of our own lives.  That peace is a peace that invites us to reach out like Thomas did and touch our Lord as we receive his very Body and Blood in all his Divine Mercy.

That peace is not some passive greeting that rests upon us and goes no further.  Whenever we are gifted with any blessing, it is never intended only for us.  We who have been gifted and healed and transformed by the peace of our Risen Lord are called just like the Eleven to continue to write the story of Jesus so that others may see and believe.  We now become the peace of Christ to reach out to a world that appears to be hopelessly un-peaceful.  We must extend that peace by reaching out to touch those who are sick, or poor, or lonely, or despairing, or doubtful, or fearful, or grieving, or fallen away.  Our own presence in and among our loved ones and in and among the world must be a presence that is rooted in the Risen Lord and steeped in his peace.  We must be the ones who help a doubting world to no longer be unbelieving but believe.

We have come here today for all kinds of reasons.  We may have come here in doubt and fear, but as we approach the Eucharist and receive the very Body and Blood of our Lord who invites us to reach out and touch him in all his brokenness and woundedness, as we go forth to glorify the Lord this day, may we leave not in doubt and fear but instead in belief and peace.  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Peace be with you.

Easter Friday

Today’s readings

It is always interesting to me that the disciples, who we are told were trained fishermen, never catch anything unless they are with Jesus.  Go through the Gospels and you will see that this is true.  Their nets always come up empty until he gives the command to cast the nets.  Then they can hardly bring in the catch because of the sheer number of fish they have caught.  Today’s episode finds the disciples dejected, not sure where to go, ready to return to their former life and their former career.  They have no idea what to do so they do what they always used to do … they go fishing.  And it is Jesus once again who not only gives them the fish, but cooks breakfast for them.  We too, are called to go fishing for the Lord in some way, but we’ll never catch anything if we go off on our own.  Praise God that he is always willing to go fishing with us!  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

I Believe in Life Everlasting: A Talk on Catholic Beliefs Regarding Eternity Given to the Clarendon Hills Interfaith Dinner

Today at Notre Dame we celebrated the funeral of a dear woman who has been part of our community for many years.  The funeral Liturgy provides a glimpse as to what the Catholic Church teaches about life, death, and eternity.  In particular, the prayer of commendation, which is said just before leaving the church says this:

Into your hands, Father of mercies,
we commend our sister Helen
in the sure and certain hope
that, together with all who have died in Christ,
she will rise with him on the last day. 

Merciful Lord,
turn toward us and listen to our prayers:
open the gates of paradise to your servant
and help us who remain
to comfort one another with assurances of faith,
until we all meet in Christ
and with you and with our sister for ever.

From this beautiful prayer, we can pick up two very important aspects of the Church’s teaching on eternity: first, for the baptized believer who has done her or his best to live the Gospel, a resurrection to life is assured – in “sure and certain hope.”  Second, that resurrection will happen together with all believers, and until then we wait, comforting one another with “assurances of faith” so that one day we can all “meet in Christ.”

So first, the believer has sure and certain hope of resurrection to life.  Many people erroneously believe that because of the Church’s teaching on works, and also the teaching on purgatory, the salvation of the believer is not certain.  But we believe that our salvation has indeed been won by Christ, and believe that those who accept his free offer of grace and friendship are indeed assured of their eternal salvation (CCC 1031).  The need for purification in purgatory is a separate matter; and I’ll ask you to bookmark that for a bit.*

Second, we believe that salvation is something we’re supposed to do together.  Yes, the individual believer has to choose to receive grace and friendship with God, but we live that grace and friendship in communion with the body of the Church, and it’s up to us as believers to encourage one another and bring one another to heaven.  This is such an important concept that the Church, in its instruction on marriage, insists that “authentic married love is caught up into divine love,” in effect, the spouses love one another into heaven (Gaudium et Spes 48.2, cf CCC 1639).  Even vocations to the consecrated religious life (monks, sisters, etc.) are ordered to the salvation of the person within the context of community.  As Saint Benedict wrote in his Rule for monks, “Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to eternal life” (Rule of St. Benedict, 72).  This desire for communal salvation is so great that the Church prays for it at every celebration of the Eucharist.  For example, this selection from Eucharistic Prayer I notes that the whole family of believers comes together to offer the sacrifice:

Therefore, Lord, we pray:
graciously accept this oblation of our service,
that of your whole family;
order our days in your peace,
and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation
and counted among the flock of those you have chosen.

And so we can say that Catholic eternity consists of assured and communal salvation for each believer.  But what does it look like?

At the moment of death, each person receives a particular, individual judgment, which corresponds to whether or not they have accepted God’s free gift of grace and friendship.  We see this biblically in the 16th chapter of the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus relates a parable about Lazarus, a poor man, who is ignored by a rich man every single day of their lives on earth.  When they have both died, Lazarus goes to heaven, while the rich man goes to hell.  The rich man cries out for relief to Father Abraham, who replies: “My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.  Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours” (Luke 16:25-26).  Jesus was giving this analogy to show the choice that we must make: accepting God’s friendship means living a certain way, loving others and reaching out to them in their need.

Heaven, then, is a choice that leads to perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity, with the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the angels and saints.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that heaven “is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (CCC 1024).  I always tell the children that I teach that God always wants us to be happy.  And if we want to be happy forever, we will always seek God’s will and do what he calls us to do.  That is the life that leads to heaven.

In heaven, we have communion with the angels and saints and all of the Church, but also and especially with God himself.  This communion is almost indescribable, although the Bible speaks of it in images: light, life, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise.  Saint Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians summed it up: “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9, cf CCC 1027).  It’s hard to describe this communion with God because he is transcendent, and so unless he gives us the grace of a capacity to see him, it doesn’t happen.  We call this grace the “beatific vision” in which we are allowed to see God and share with him the joy of salvation (CCC 1028).

Now, we can’t talk about heaven without at least mentioning the other thing, and that is hell.  Because that’s where the rich man found himself, so because Jesus included it in his teaching, we know that it exists.  But what the Church teaches about hell is that it is in itself a choice.  To get there, one must completely reject God’s free gift of grace and friendship.  This is usually done through the act of unrepentant mortal sin: one knows the right thing to do, and actively chooses not to do it, and acts contrary to the good.  If a person commits a mortal sin, it can be forgiven through grace, but for the one who chooses not to seek forgiveness and chooses not to repent, the only other option is a life devoid of God’s presence.  And that life we call hell (CCC 1033).

But here’s the thing about hell.  We don’t really know if anyone’s there or not, well, except for Satan and his demons.  But since God doesn’t send anyone to hell – one chooses to go there freely – we can’t say for certain that there is anyone there.  The Church teaches that we definitely know that thousands of people are in heaven, because we call them saints.  The process of sainthood involves the recognition of miracles that happen after the saint’s death, indicating that the person is acting from the glory of heaven to affect the good of those on earth.  But the Church has never named anyone who is in hell, because we cannot know if, at the moment of death, an unrepentant sinner may have called out to God for mercy, repenting of her or his sins.  We know that hell exists, and we know that it is possible to go there of one’s own free will, but we don’t know that anyone has chosen that option.  In fact, we hope not.

To sum up Catholic teaching about the nature of heaven and eternity, I’d like to once again choose some words from the Church’s Liturgy.  This time it comes from the prayers for the dead, which can be said at the bedside of a dying person.  For them we pray:

Go forth, Christian soul, from this world
in the name of God the almighty Father,
who created you,
in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God,
who suffered for you,
in the name of the Holy Spirit,
who was poured out upon you.
Go forth, faithful Christian!

May you live in peace this day,
may your home be with God in Zion,
with Mary, the virgin Mother of God,
with Joseph, and all the angels and saints …

May you return to [your Creator]
who formed you from the dust of the earth.
May holy Mary, the angels, and all the saints
come to meet you as you go forth from this life…
May you see your Redeemer face to face.  Amen.

*Purgatory

So I referred to Purgatory earlier, and I said to book mark it.  Let’s come back to it now.  Purgatory is thought of as the final purification, in which the soul is made fit to be caught up into the life of God in heaven.  Now once again, every believer who has accepted God’s grace and friendship is absolutely assured of eternal salvation.  But if they have sins that have left them impure at death, they must be purified to enter the joy of heaven (CCC 1030).  The purification in purgatory is entirely different that the punishment of the damned in hell.  Purgatory is, instead, that “cleansing fire” that Saint Paul speaks of in his first letter to the Corinthians (cf. 1 Cor 3:15, 1 Pet 1:7).  This is why the Church prays for the dead, a practice that comes from the book of Maccabees in which we read: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Macc 12:46, cf. CCC 1032).

I tell people that Purgatory is really a gift.  It’s that time and experience of our spiritual life in which we are completely made ready for the life of heaven.  It’s kind of stereotypical for a Catholic to say this, but eternity can be likened to a party.  Those who freely accept the invitation freely offered enter in and enjoy the party.  This is heaven.  Those who reject the invitation outright are outside the party, and this is hell.  But imagine going to a party and you know that you’ve done or said something wrong to another person at the party, in particular the host.  You’re not going to be enjoying yourself with the guilt of that indiscretion on your heart.  So you need to do something to fix the relationship so that you can enjoy the party.  That’s what Purgatory is.  You still get to go to the party, but you have to make amends first.

Easter Thursday 

Today’s readings 

Can you imagine how the disciples were feeling at this point? Prior to today’s Gospel selection, the women found the empty tomb, Peter has seen the Lord, and the two disciples had experienced him in the breaking of the bread on the way to Emmaus. Their minds were most likely reeling with excitement; trying to get a grip on the things he had said to them while he was still with them. I’m sure they were trying to figure out what all this meant, what they needed to do next.
Maybe that’s why the Lord’s initial words to them are “Peace be with you.” And apparently it didn’t work, because they think they’re seeing a ghost. After he eats some fish and speaks to them of the Scriptures, he sends them on mission with the words: “You are witnesses of these things.” 
The peace that Jesus gives them is not the absence of conflict. That they will be witnesses to the fulfillment of the Scriptures will be anything but peaceful for them. They will have to make sacrifices – sacrifices of their very lives – to witness as Jesus calls them to, but there is no other choice. They are now beginning to understand the significance of what has happened among them, and they must go forward to do what they had been chosen to do. 
When we have to make the decision to follow God’s call in our lives, we too will have to sacrifice. Not our lives, probably, but we will have to sacrifice our own comfort, our control over our own lives, our own point of view. But just like the disciples, we must remember what we have been chosen to do, and follow where we are being led. 
We are witnesses of these things too, we are called to live and proclaim the Gospel. May we too receive the peace of Christ that we might focus on our call.