Tuesday of the Seventh Week of Easter 

Today’s readings 

Today’s Liturgy of the Word represents 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!

Memorial Day 

Today’s readings: Isaiah 32:15-18, Philippians 4:6-9, Matthew 5:1-12a

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. This continues to be the main focus of Memorial Day but this day has also become a time to remember not just those who died in war, but also all of our loved ones who have died. It is above all a time to remember.

One of the aspects of human nature is that we tend to look for heroes. People we can look up to, who have buoyed our spirits in difficult times, who have turned our attention to the best parts of our humanity. These are the people we wish to emulate, the people who bring us hope in a darkened world. These heroes may be our loved ones or people in our communities who have done great things. People who have sacrificed for the good of others.

On this day we especially look to those who have been heroes in war. People who have given their lives for peace, justice, and righteousness. The beatitudes that we just heard in the Gospel proclaim them blessed: blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are they that are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. We have heard these before, but it’s so important that we hear that these people are blessed, these people are true heroes because of what they sacrifice and stand for and fight for.

I want to be careful not to glorify warfare. I think 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. And I think that very many war heroes would caution us not to do that. But I certainly acknowledge that there are and have been times in our nation’s history that have called on good people to fight for our freedoms and to fight for justice. Today we honor their memory with immense gratitude, because without their sacrifice we might not enjoy the blessings we have today.

Those who have been part of our lives, and the life of our country, who have been people of faith and integrity are the heroes that God has given us. These are the ones who have been poor in spirit, who have mourned, who have been meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, merciful, peacemaking, and all the rest. 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 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. And he is present in our Church today. His abiding presence is with us when we gather in his name, when we worship, hear the Word proclaimed and celebrate the sacraments. And he is with us, too, when we serve others, being those hands and feet of Jesus in a tangible way.

The second direction that the Ascension gives us 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 finally, the Ascension reminds us 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!

School Graduation: GO!

Today’s readings: Acts 1:6-12 | 1 Timothy 4:12-16 | Matthew 28:16-20

Right in the middle of tonight’s Gospel reading, there is one word that sums it up for Christian disciples.  This is the word that marks what we’re supposed to do; it wraps up all the instructions Jesus gave to his Apostles, and to all of us who are his disciples.  This one word is especially appropriate for you graduates today, as you get ready to begin the next phase of your life in a new school.  That word is: GO!

We hear that word a lot.  Once we have learned the rules of a game or a race or some kind of contest, the person officiating the game will say something like, “Ready?  Go!”  “Go” is a word we look forward to: we can’t wait to begin the game or start the project, or whatever it is we’re doing.  There’s no time like the present, and we always want to keep going.  But that same word can trigger a bit of sadness.  We don’t always want to go; we like where we are, where we are has been home, and it’s comfortable.  When we go, we’re often in unknown territory, and so going can be as much an occasion for pause as anything else.  Trust me, as I get ready to go to a new parish, that “going” is uneasy to say the least!

So going is part and parcel of life, both our life in this world, but also our life with Christ.  In this life, we will, like it or not, experience a lot of coming and going.  We are always on the move, until that great day that we get home to heaven, that place that is our true home, that place to which we journey all through our earthly lives.  Our readings today give us a clue as to how we’re supposed to go through this life, what we’re supposed to do as disciples, and what Jesus sends you all forth to do in this special moment of your educational life.

Our first reading is a preview of the feast we will celebrate on Sunday: the Ascension of the Lord.  Jesus, having died on the cross and been buried, and then having risen from the dead on the third day, has walked among his disciples for forty days, helping them to see what he meant when he taught them all during his life before the cross.  Now, he is getting ready to ascend back to heaven, so that he can prepare a place for them and for us to live for all eternity.  As he goes, they quite understandably stand there, looking up into heaven, marveling at what they see, and trying to make sense of it all.  But into the midst of that, two mysterious figures dressed in white – most likely angels – come and stand with them and assure them the Lord will return.  It’s almost a message that says, “Don’t just stand there, do something – GO!”

In the second reading, Saint Paul is telling his friend Saint Timothy to GO.  He urges him not to dwell on this difference in his age and the age of Timothy’s hearers, but instead to preaching the Scriptures by word and example.  If he does that, Saint Paul tells him, he will find salvation both for himself and for others.  Saint Paul’s message to Timothy is one that I think is especially appropriate for you young people, our graduates, who are getting ready to go on to the next step in your educational and developmental life.  You have been taught well here at Notre Dame, and what you have been taught, you are expected to share with others.  You are to be the witnesses of Jesus by word and example, passing on what you have learned here so that you can find salvation for yourself and others.

So I thought it might be well to take a quick look back and review some of the important things you’ve been taught.  The first thing I’d mention is what I have taught you is the most important thing that you can know about God in this life.  Do you remember what it is?  Yes, God loves you – in fact God is love itself.  God is a love so perfect that it surpasses anything we can know about love in this life.  God is a love so pure that God cannot not love – that wouldn’t logically be possible.  And so God, in love, made people – you and me and everyone else – so that he could have a way to show his love.  And so God loves us, forgives us, guides us, challenges us, and loves us some more.  And so I’ve told you that writing “God loves me” as the answer on a religion test would get you at least half a point.  I’m not sure if that works in high school, but I obviously think it should!

The second thing I’d want you to remember is that it’s not all about you.  You, and your relationship with God, are certainly part of the equation, but we disciples aren’t just supposed to live for ourselves.  We are a people who are to go out and preach and teach and share and witness what we’ve been taught.  Sometimes, we will do this with words, but most often, we will do this with actions.  We will reach out and take care of people in our lives, and people God puts in our lives.  We will make a decision to give of ourselves so that people in need can have a better life, or at least a better day.  The gifts that we have are never given to us just for ourselves; they are meant to be shared, and when we share them, we find they don’t run out, we just keep getting more to share.  It’s kind of like the feeding of the multitudes: when we share our little offering of five loaves and two fish, God makes it enough, and more than enough, to feed everyone.  But only when we remember that it’s not just about ourselves.

The final thing I’d like to remind you about is something I mentioned in my homily last Friday, and that is that as a leader – and all of you will lead in some way at some time – you should never ask people to do something you’re not willing to do yourself.  Jesus is the absolute best example of that.  In teaching us to love each other and lay down our lives for each other, he literally laid down his life for us: dying on the cross to pay the price for our sins and to give us the possibility of eternal life, of going to that place prepared for us in his Father’s house, that home that is our true home – in heaven.  And so just like Jesus, we too have to lead by being servants, and taking up the cross, and doing what we might not want to do but what needs to be done, so that others will see the way to live too.  We have to witness by example and to lead the way we want others to live.

I believe these lessons will serve you well.  Know that you are loved just for who you are.  That will give you peace on your darkest days.  Know that you are called to reach out to others so that they can find light in the darkness.  And know that you are a leader when you witness by your life and example.  When you do all that, you’ll be successful beyond your wildest dreams, and you’ll have a relationship with your God that no one can take away from you, and will bring you to that place of ultimate happiness.

Having learned all this, I charge you all to GO.  Go, make a difference.  Go, live in God’s love.  Go, be a witness to what you’ve been taught.  Go, lead the world to a better place.  Go, be a disciple and make disciples of everyone you meet.  Go, knowing that our Lord is with you until the end of the age.  Go, and glorify the Lord with your life.

Monday of the Sixth Week of Easter 

Today’s readings 

Today, Jesus has for us good news and bad news. The good news is that he is eventually going to send the Holy Spirit upon the world. The Holy Spirit will be a new Advocate for us, and will testify to everything that Jesus said and did. The Spirit’s testimony will be further evidence of God’s abiding love for us, a love that did not come to an end at the cross or the tomb, but instead triumphed over everything to make known his salvation to the ends of the earth. The testimony of the Holy Spirit, combined with the testimony of the Apostles, would be the birth pangs of the emerging Church, given by Christ to make the Gospel known in every land and every age.

But the bad news is, that glory won’t come without a price. Those Apostles would be expelled from the synagogues and misguided worshippers would think they were doing God’s will by killing them. Jesus knew this would be the lot of his baby disciples and he cares for them enough to warn them of what is to come. It is an important aspect of their discernment to know what is to come. Also, by warning them, he is preparing them for what is to come so that when it does happen, they may not be flustered or frightened, but might instead hold deeply to their faith, knowing that God’s providence had foreseen these calamities and they might know that in God’s providence, these calamities would not be the end of the story.
We are beneficiaries of the good news and bad news of today’s Gospel. We have heard the testimony of the Spirit and the Apostles, have been nourished by the Church they founded, have been encouraged by all that they suffered to bring the Good News to us. It is important that we too know that there is good news and bad news in the future of our discipleship. The Spirit continues to testify and the Apostles continue to teach us – that’s the good news. The bad news is, sometimes our faith will be tested, and sometimes our faith with cost us something. But in the end, it’s all Good News: even our suffering will not be the end of the story. God’s love triumphs over everything.

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

So today I want to address a topic that I think doesn’t get enough attention, and that is the topic of hope.  Saint Peter in today’s second reading urges us to “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope…”  And that’s a bigger challenge, I think, than we realize sometimes.

First of all, I think we don’t really understand what hope is.  In common usage, I think hope means something like a wish.  We often say, “I hope that …” or “I hope so,” as if to say, “It probably won’t ever happen, but it would be really nice.”  That’s not what hope means, and that’s not the kind of hope that Saint Peter is asking us to be ready to explain.  Even the definition of hope leaves this discussion wanting.  Merriam Webster defines hope as “to cherish a desire with anticipation; to want something to be happen or be true.”  Anticipation implies more than a mere wish, certainly.  But wanting something to happen or be true entertains the possibility that it will not.  That’s not the kind of hope we’re talking about either.

But Merriam Webster also provides what it calls an “archaic” usage, which defines hope in one word: trust.  And now I think we’re closer to home.  The hope that we have in Jesus is something in which we can certainly trust, because he promises its truth, and God always keeps his promises.  All we have to do is attach ourselves to that hope so that we can be caught up in it in all the right moments.So what is it that we hope for?  In what do we place our hope, our trust?  Maybe it would be better to ask in whom we hope: Jesus is our hope, and through his death and resurrection, he has set us free from the bonds of sin and death, and opened up the way for us to enter eternal life in communion with the Father.

Our world needs this hope.  Just tune in to the news to see that lack of hope: wars, skirmishes and unrest in many parts of the world; bizarre weather and killer tornadoes in many places of our country this spring; cataclysmic natural disasters over the past few years that have left whole countries reeling.  Closer to home, we could cite high unemployment, rising prices on everything from gas to food, violence in our cities, and so much more.  It doesn’t take much looking around to feel like there’s no hope of hope anywhere.

So the problem, I think, is in what or where that we place our hope.  Often we place our hope in ourselves or our own efforts, only to find ourselves at some point over our heads.  Or maybe we place our hope in other people in our lives, only at some point to be disappointed.  We sometimes place our hope in Oprah or Doctor Phil or their ilk, only to find out that their pep-talks at some point ring hollow and their philosophies are shallow.  You can’t find much hope in sources like these, or if you do, you might find that hope to be short-lived.  And so, as I said, if we want real hope something in which we can truly trust, the only place we need to look, the only one we should look to, is God.

Now, I say this, knowing full well that some of you have prayed over and over and over for something to change, only to be disappointed after you say “Amen.”  And there’s no way I’m going to tell you that all you have to do is pray and everything will work out all right.  God doesn’t promise us perfect happiness in this life, and so often we are going to go through periods of sorrow and disappointment.  That’s the unfortunate news of life in this passing world.  The sorrow and disappointment are not God’s will for us, they are by-products of sin – our own sin or the sin of others – and those things grieve God very much.

But even in those times of grief, God still gives us hope, if we turn to him.  The hope that he offers is the knowledge that no matter how bad things get, we don’t go through them alone, that God is there for us, walking with us through the sorrow and pain and never giving up on us.

Today’s readings give us a foundation for this hope.  In the second reading, Peter awakens our hope of forgiveness.  He says, “For Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God.  Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the Spirit.”  Even our sinfulness is no match for God’s mercy.  Because of Christ’s death and resurrection we have hope of eternal life in God’s kingdom.  Because God loved us so much, he gave his only Son for our salvation, and now we have hope of forgiveness, hope for God’s presence in our lives.

In the Gospel, Jesus tells us that we can hope in him because we will always have his presence.  Even though he ascended to the right hand of the Father, as we’ll celebrate next week, he is with us always.  “And I will ask the Father,” he says, “and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth…”  We receive that Holy Spirit sacramentally in Baptism and Confirmation, and we live in his Spirit every day.  The presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives gives us the hope that we are never alone, even in our darkest hours; that the Spirit intercedes for us and guides us through life.

We disciples have to be convinced of that hope; we have to take comfort in the hope that never passes from us, in the abiding presence of God who wants nothing more than to be with us.  We have to reflect that hope into our sometimes hopeless world.  As Saint Peter said, “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.  Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope…” The reason for our hope is Christ.  We find our hope in the cross and resurrection.  We experience our hope in the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.  We spread that hope in our hopeless world by being Christ to others, living as disciples of Jesus when the whole world would rather drag us down.  Even when life is difficult, we can live with a certain sense of joy, because above all, we are disciples of hope.

Thursday of the Fifth Week of Easter 

Today’s readings 

In our first reading this morning, we have from the Acts of the Apostles a rather defining moment for the early Church. Jesus hadn’t given them a precise rule book of how to make the Church develop: he simply sent them out to baptize. But he also told them to make disciples of all the nations, and that’s what’s at stake in today’s reading. Because the nations didn’t observe all the laws that the Jews did. And so admitting non-Jews to the Church meant deciding whether they had to be circumcised, and whether they had to observe all the other laws of the Old Testament.

Well, obviously, this little mini-council, swayed by the great stories of Paul and Barnabas, decided that the Spirit could call anyone to be disciples, and they shouldn’t get in the way. So they decide to impose very little upon them, outside of avoiding idol worship and unlawful marriage. And then the Psalmist’s prophecy, “Proclaim God’s marvelous deeds to all the nations” came to pass. If it weren’t for this little council, we wouldn’t be Christians today. Praise God for the movement of the Spirit.
And now the command comes to us: we have to be the ones to proclaim God’s deeds to everyone, and not to make distinctions that marginalize other people. God’s will is not fulfilled until every heart has the opportunity to respond to his love.