Monday of the Fifth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

Today’s readings are a reminder that we disciples have to be discerning.  It is important for us to discern what the truth is so that we can be led to the one who is Truth itself.  The Gentiles, who worshiped idols, didn’t have the context of monotheism – that there is one God – to help them. Paul and Barnabas did their best to catechize them, but there was much work to be done to overcome something that had been for the Greeks so culturally ingrained.  The Gentiles didn’t have a context of God working through human beings, so they naturally mistook Paul and Barnabas for gods.

And in today’s Gospel, Jesus spells out how one can discern who is a true disciple.  The true disciple, claiming that he or she loves God, will be one who keeps God’s commandments.  If the disciple truly loves God, keeping God’s commandments would be second nature for him or her.  But if one were to see someone claiming to love God and be his disciple but not obeying God’s commandments, one could conclude that person is not a true disciple.

Discernment is important for us, because we want authenticity in our worship and in our belief and understanding.  Discernment is a gift of the Holy Spirit.  It is that gift that helps us to know right from wrong, or truth from falsehood.  It’s a gift that we need to work hard to cultivate each day, because it keeps us from heading down the wrong path, and instead keeps us on the path to life eternal. And the best way to cultivate that gift is to work daily on our relationship with Christ, because when we come to know the One who is Truth itself, then we will be filled with the Holy Spirit and come to know the truth.

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

Often when I was growing up, our family would trim the numerous shrubs on the grounds of our home.  When we were pruning the shrubs, I often thought about the fact that this process could not be all that painless for the shrub.  It involved cutting away branches, some of which were dead, but some of them looked for all the world like they were healthy and life-giving. Sometimes, to make the shrub more vibrant, some branches had to be radically cut away.

Here’s the thing: we have to allow that kind of painful process in our own lives too.  We have to be willing to get some of us pruned away if we are to grow as healthy and fully human people.  That’s our task in this world: to become fully human, fully the people God created us to be.  So whatever gets in the way of that fullness has to be chopped off, and sometimes that’s just not pretty. Pruning ourselves is painfully difficult, but we recognize that the things we prune away can be really destructive: relationships that entangle us in ways that are not healthy, pleasures that lead to sin, habits that are not virtuous.  However enjoyable these relationships or activities may seem to be, and however painful it may be to end them, end them we must in the name of pruning our lives to be healthier, to be more fully the people we were created to be. There is no other way.

There’s one other thing that our Gospel today tells us that we must do in order to become what we were meant to be, and that is to remain in Christ.  That’s what he says in the Gospel:

Remain in me, as I remain in you.
Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own
unless it remains on the vine,
so neither can you unless you remain in me.

And I’d have to say that they key here is the word “remain” because Jesus uses it four times in that short quote!  “Remain in me,” Jesus says, as the branch remains in the vine.  “Remain in me,” Jesus says, so that you can bear much fruit.  “Remain in me,” Jesus says, so that you will not wither and dry up only to be pruned off and burned as rubbish.  “Remain in me,” Jesus says, so that whatever you truly need and want will be done, and so that you can bear much fruit and be my disciples.

If we want to be truly happy, if we want ultimate fulfillment in life, if we really want to be the wonderful creation God made us to be, we must remain in Jesus, because, as he says, “without me you can do nothing.”  And that’s true.  How many times have we tried to better ourselves, but along the way have lost sight of the goal?  How many times have we tried to stamp out a pattern of sin in our lives, only to fall victim to it time and time again?  How many times have we tried to repair relationships only to have egos, hurts or resentments get in the way?  When we forget to start our work and continue our work with God’s help, we are destined to fail.  Apart from Jesus we can do nothing.  Well does he advise us to remain in him.

But what does “remain in me” look like?  Unfortunately, we don’t get a clear-cut blueprint for that in today’s Gospel.  And the truth is, remaining in Christ is going to be different for every person.  Just like pruning shrubs isn’t a once-and-for-all activity, we are going to have to do some pruning every now and then so that we can remain in Christ.  And so we’ll have to continue to be on the lookout for parts of our lives that are not ultimately life-giving and prune them away.  But we’ll also have to look out for opportunities that will fertilize our growth.  We have to check our growth daily, we have to examine where we are remaining every day.  That might start with Sunday Mass attendance, and perhaps move on to daily Mass, praying devotions like the Rosary or Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, reading Scripture every day, and taking time at the end of the day to see whether we’ve been part of the vine, or are in danger of breaking away from it.  We have to be willing to renew ourselves in Christ every single day of our lives.

It’s not so easy for us to be most fully the wonderful human creation we were made to be.  But that, brothers and sisters in Christ, is our calling and our joy.  And to help us on that journey, we have the most perfect human person that ever walked the earth to be our Savior: Jesus Christ, like us in every way but sin.  Striving to remain in him and become more like him will nourish us when we cut off those dead parts of us so that we can truly live.

Saturday of the Fourth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

So pretend you are Paul or Barnabas or one of the other apostles.  Think about all the things they went through in that first reading. Paul hasn’t even been a Christian for very long, and already he is being hounded and persecuted.  Maybe that makes sense because some people probably viewed his conversion as a kind of treason.  Whatever the case, as they speak out boldly in the name of Jesus, they receive nothing but violent abuse from the Jews.  So then they turn then to the Gentiles who were delighted to hear the Word preached to them.  But the Jews didn’t even leave that alone; they stirred up some of the prominent Gentiles to persecute Paul and Barnabas and eventually they expelled them from their territory.  What a horrible reception they received over and over again.

But, listen to the last line of that first reading again: “The disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.”

Let that sink in for a minute: would that be your reaction?  Or would you say, “enough is enough” and let God stir up someone else to preach the Word?  Obviously, that’s not what Paul and Barnabas, or any of the other disciples did, or we wouldn’t be here today.  No, they were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God!

That’s the way joy works. It’s not something conditioned by the external events of a person’s life.  Joy is not a feeling. Joy, instead, is a direct result of the disciple’s decision to give their life to Christ and to follow his way – wherever that may take him or her.  Joy does not mean that the disciple won’t experience sadness or even hard times.  I have experienced that in my own life, and I’m sure you have too.  But joy does mean that the disciple will never give in to the sadness or the hard times because all those things have been made new in Christ.

Christ is the source of our true joy.  We disciples must choose to live lives of joy and remain unaffected by the world and the events of our lives.  We choose joy because we know the One who is our Salvation, and because it is he who fills us with joy and the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

“It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.”

You know, I think the name Christian is so common to us that we take it for granted.  For those first disciples, there had to be a mix of emotions that came with being called Christians for the first time.  They may have been a bit fearful, because we know what happened to Christ, and so going about doing works in his name and being seen as his followers could certainly be dangerous for them.  But they were probably also deeply honored to be called Christian.  Being seen as his followers and people who did what he did was exactly what they wanted to happen, and because of that, we are told that many more people were added to the flock.  So there had to be a little joy in that mix of emotions too.

So what about us, what does it do for us to be called Christian?  For some people, it probably seems like Christians are a dime a dozen, and most of them are not nearly as zealous as were those first Christians.  So today, being called Christian isn’t probably a complement or an accusation so much as it’s a way to categorize us, or even bracket us so that our message, our influence, can be ignored.

But our objective has to be the same as those first disciples.  We have to want that many would be added to the Lord after they see what we do and hear what we say.  In order for that to happen, we have to be people of integrity.  Our worship can’t end when we say “thanks be to God,” but instead must continue into our living, into our daily lives.  We have to be people who stand up for life, who live the Gospel, who reach out to the poor and the marginalized, who earnestly seek to bring souls to Christ.  I think the world is aching to see that kind of authenticity in us.  And we have to love them enough to bring them to our Savior.

When we are called “Christian,” it should stir up in our hearts a little fear and a little joy too.  The fear should be that we would in any way neglect the mission or tear it down, and the joy should come when we realize that people see Christ in us.  The Psalmist today says “All you nations, praise the Lord.”  And that’s what we want to happen, to have people of every nation praise the Lord and call themselves Christian too.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

World Day of Prayer for Vocations

Jesus uses an image in today’s Gospel that would have been very familiar to his hearers, and with it, he illustrates the significance of following one’s vocation in life. In a basically suburban place in the modern world, this image 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.

At this time, I ask you all to join me in praying together our vocation prayer, which you can find on your worship aid:

Almighty God,

You have given us the gift of life,

and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Deepen within us a desire to do your will.

Help us to hear and answer your call to serve you.

Guide us to the vocation you have chosen for us,

as a loving spouse and parent in the Sacrament of Marriage, as a single person living a life of generous service, or through a special call to serve you in Religious Life or the Priesthood.

May your Holy Spirit keep us always close to your Son Jesus, and help us to say yes to Him

with the gift of our lives. We ask this through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

Tuesday of the Second Week of Easter

Today’s readings

Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is a perplexing one, to be sure.  But in the light of Easter, we can see that Jesus was proclaiming that God is doing something new.  Not only that, but God wants us all to be part of that new thing.  Addressing Nicodemus, Jesus said that the old ways of worshipping and living were no longer sufficient, and really no longer needed.  God was looking not just for people’s obedience, but also, mostly, for their hearts.

We see those hearts at work in the early Christian community.  The reading from Acts this morning tells us that the believers cared for one another deeply, and were generous in that care.  “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.”  They were even selling their possessions to give to those who were in need.  Nobody felt needy, nobody felt cheated, nobody felt like they were doing more than their share.  People were worshipping not just with their minds, but also with their hearts, and their worshipping didn’t stop when they left the worship place.

So the same has to be true for us, really.  We have to be willing to give of our hearts, to believe not just when we’re in church, but also when we are in the rest of our life.  We have to trust God to take care of us when we stick our neck out to help someone else.  We have to trust that even when we are doing more than other people are, God will take care of the equity of it all and never be outdone in generosity.  We have to worship not just with our minds but also with our hearts.

The Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday)

Today’s readings

Today, on the eighth day of Easter, which we still celebrate as Easter Sunday, 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 incredibly afraid.  They knew that they could easily suffer the same fate as the Lord, and feared that the Jews were hunting them down.  I think in some ways, too, beginning to realize that the Lord had truly risen, they were afraid that they might not be doing what our Lord expected of them.  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 remember 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, which he showed to Thomas at his request.  Jesus 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 let him sort it all out.  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 people 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, there are people in our own lives who need our forgiveness.  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.

Jesus, I trust in you!

Easter Friday

Today’s readings

“Come have breakfast.”  These are some of my favorite words of Holy Scripture!  I say that in jest, but I truly think these are significant words in Scripture.  Here Jesus appears to his disciples, and just like the appearance on the way to Emmaus, the disciples recognize him in the breaking of the bread, as he is feeding them.  Jesus’ preferred way to be present to his people is by feeding us in our hunger, and that is truly something to celebrate in these Easter days.

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 had not yet made sense of the whole Jesus event.  Just when they thought things were going well, he is betrayed by one of their own brothers, arrested, killed on a cross.  And now he is appearing to them here and there.  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.  They were hungering for wisdom, for some way to make sense of everything they had experienced.  And Jesus provides that by breaking bread with them, and helping them to see that it is only in him that their life makes any sense.  They’re not going to find it in their former work, they’re not going to find it in their pre-conceived notions about the Messiah.  They’re only going to find it by taking up the cross themselves, dying to what has made them feel comfortable, and rising to a freedom that nothing can match.  Then, in their relationship with Jesus, they’ll really be able to go fishing and will produce a catch that no net can contain.

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!

Easter Tuesday

Today’s readings

Letting go of things is harder than we can sometimes even admit.  I think that’s what was going on with Mary Magdalene.  And we are just like her: we want to hold on to things and people as they are, because what is familiar is so very comfortable to us.  I think sometimes that’s true regardless of whether the familiar is positive or negative.  So many times we hold on to whatever we have and refuse to let them go because it’s as if we’re afraid we’ll be giving away some piece of ourselves.  So then what happens is that we hang on to images of ourselves or other people in our life that are outdated, and stifle any room for growth.  We hang on to resentments or past hurts and never give any chance for healing.  We hang on to unhealthy relationships and never give ourselves a chance to break the cycle of pain they bring.  We hang on to bad work situations and miss following our true calling.

What Mary needed to hear from Jesus in today’s Gospel was that she had to stop hanging on to things as they were, and to allow God’s promise to be fully revealed.  The time for mourning was over, it was now time to rejoice and begin spreading the word that the Gospel was coming to its fruition.  She had to begin that by going and spreading the word to the other disciples.

We too, have to stop grieving our past hurts and resentments and outdated notions of the world, ourselves and our relationships so that God’s promise can be fully revealed in us.  The message of Easter joy means that we must begin that by spreading the news that Jesus is doing something new in us and in our world, and make sure that everyone knows about it. We can do that by examining our lives every day and reflecting on what God is doing in us and how we are responding to it.  This is the kind of daily reflection that will help us to let go of what is unhelpful and grasp firmly to that which will lead us to Christ.

As we continue to live lives of conversion like this, we too can proclaim with Mary Magdalene on this Easter day, and every day, “We have seen the Lord!”

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 think about the bad surprises: the death of a loved one, an illness, loss of a job.  But 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 recall 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 were utterly amazed – they 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 hopeless situations are 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!

This morning, we gather to celebrate that our God makes amazing things happen.  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.  Sin and death have been defeated and no longer hold ultimate power over us.  God is not dead and we courageously proclaim that he is risen!  Do not be amazed!

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!