The Ascension of Our Lord

Today’s readings

When I was on my pastoral internship in seminary, my supervisor and I talked about the fact that our Liturgy is very wordy. Think about it: all of the prayers and readings and songs – it’s a lot of words to take in in an hour or less, but we do it all the time. So once in a while, I like to reflect on what are the important words in the Mass. We have the words of institution of the Eucharist – those are extremely important. The proclamation of the Scriptures, especially the Gospel, well we can’t discount those either. And let’s not forget the Creed, the words of which were the cause of many arguments and literally fights over the centuries – those words are very carefully chosen.

But there is one word that I think is the most important, and I bet it’s going to surprise you. Because that word is “GO.” Go: we have to wait all the way to the end of Mass to hear the deacon or priest say it. “Go in peace.” Because it’s way at the end of Mass, I wonder if some people ever get to hear it. But whether we hear it or not, it’s kind of a throw-away, or it seems so. But it’s not. It’s not just a word of dismissal kind of like “you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.” It’s not just a word to get us out of the church and on to the next thing in life.

“Go” is a word of mission, and we hear it in our Gospel today. Jesus tells the disciples: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” That was what the disciples were to do. They weren’t supposed to just stand there staring up into the sky: they were supposed to GO and do the work of salvation until Jesus returned in glory.

Obviously, the command that was given to those first disciples is one that we are supposed to get as well. We are supposed to GO and preach the gospel in what we say and what we do. We are supposed to GO and baptize people by leading them to the faith in our witness. We are supposed to GO in peace, glorifying the Lord by our lives. We are supposed to GO and announce the gospel of the Lord. We do that by volunteering at the parish, looking in on a sick or elderly neighbor, living lives of integrity in the workplace. We do that by striving to be Christ-like to every person we meet.

So I hope that you’ll hear that word “GO” at the end of Mass differently now than perhaps you have before. I hope that you’ll hear it as a calling, as a challenge, and as a sacred duty. I hope you’ll take up the call to GO and make the world into the Kingdom of God among us.

Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

“You will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices;

you will grieve, but your grief will become joy.”

Jesus continues to prepare his disciples for his not being among them in the flesh. He knows that his death, resurrection and Ascension were all part of the plan, and he wants the disciples to be prepared so that their grief does not overwhelm the mission. He knows that they will indeed grieve, after all, he was fully human in that way too. He grieved over the death of Lazarus and grieved over the needs of the people he ministered to. He knew that sadness was to be expected and please note carefully that he did not tell them not to grieve: “You will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve…” So he does not, as our modern society would, tell them to get over it and get back to work. He knows that grief is healthy and necessary.

But he also gives them hope. Because we Christians do not grieve as if we have no hope. He knows that salvation is the plan, and that death is no longer the end of the story. Their grief would indeed become joy. And joy isn’t the same thing as saying they would always be happy. But just because people grieve doesn’t mean they are not experiencing joy. Because joy is a condition that is not regulated by external circumstances. Joy comes from knowing that God is in control and that salvation is ours.

Joy ultimately comes from the Holy Spirit, the Advocate that Jesus knew for certain he would be sending once he returned to the Father. The Spirit’s presence in our lives gives us a joy that the world and all its grief cannot ever take away. We too look forward to these events as we prepare for our annual celebrations of the Ascension and Pentecost. We may indeed be subject to grief in this life, in many forms. But we have been given the gift of the Spirit, we know that God is in control and that salvation is ours.

We may indeed weep and mourn while the world rejoices; we may grieve, but our grief will certainly become joy.

Tuesday of the Sixth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

There are a lot of miracles going on in today’s first reading.  First, there’s the earthquake that brings down the prison walls, although Paul and Silas did not take advantage of the situation.  Then there’s the conversion of the jailer, who was an employee of the Romans, and so would have had to worship their pagan gods.  You might also note the rather miraculous faith of Paul and Silas, who despite being very badly mistreated on account of Jesus, did not abandon their faith but actually grew stronger in it.  And you might also consider it a miracle that, when they are jailed and singing hymns at midnight, the other prisoners didn’t gang up and beat them into silence!

When you look at it as a vignette, it’s all so amazing, although Paul and Silas probably just viewed it as part and parcel of the life they had been called to live.  They had faith in Jesus and they probably didn’t expect anything less than the miracles they were seeing!

People of great faith experience such great miracles.  This is not to say that all their troubles go away; Paul and Silas were still imprisoned, and continued to be hounded by the people and the government because of their faith.  But the miracles come through the abiding presence of Christ, giving us strength when we need it most, a kind word from a stranger that comes at the right moment, a phone call from a friend that makes our day, an answer to prayer that is not what we expected but exactly what we needed.  The Psalmist today has that same great faith: “Your right hand saves me, O Lord,” he sings.  Let us pray that our hearts and eyes and minds would be open to see the miracles happening around us, that we might sing that same great song!

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

I don’t know if you were counting or not, but between the second reading and the Gospel, the word “love” was used in one form or another eighteen times.  So it’s pretty easy to see where the Church is leading us in today’s Liturgy of the Word.  Love is a theme that runs through John’s Gospel and the letters of Saint John: John’s point is that the Gospel is summed up in that God is love.

Now we get all kinds of notions about what love is and what it’s not.  Our culture feeds us mostly false notions, unfortunately, and it gets confusing because love can mean so many different things.  I can say, “cookies are my favorite food – I love cookies!” and that’s obviously not the kind of love Jesus wants us to know about today.  When we say “love” in our language, we could mean an attraction, like puppy love, or we could mean that we like something a lot, or we might even be referring to the sexual act.  And none of that is adequate to convey the kind of love that is the hallmark of Jesus’ disciples.

So I think we should look at the Greek word which is being translated “love” here.  That word is agape Agape is the love of God, or love that comes from God.  It is outwardly expressed in the person of Jesus Christ, who came to show the depth of God’s love by dying on the Cross to pay the price for our many sins.  So that’s the kind of love that Jesus is talking about today; it’s kind of a benchmark of love that he is putting out there for our consideration.

To really see what Jesus meant by love in today’s Gospel, all we have to do is to look at Jesus.  His command is that his disciples – including us, of course – should “Love one another as I have loved you.”  And the operative phrase there is: “as I have loved you.”   Meaning, “in the same way I have loved you.”  And we can see how far Jesus took that – all the way to the cross.  He loved us enough to take our sins upon himself and nail them to the cross, dying to pay the price for those sins, and being raised from the dead to smash the power of those sins to control our eternity.  So the love that Jesus is talking about here is sacrificial.  And he says it rather plainly in one of my favorite pieces of Holy Scripture: “No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  This sacrificial quality a vital property of agape love.

And the disciples clearly were called to that kind of sacrificial love.  They were persecuted, thrown out of the synagogues, beaten for stirring up trouble, put to death for their faith in Christ.  Like their Savior, they laid down their lives for their friends.  That is what disciples do.  And so, we disciples hear that same command too.   We may never be asked to literally die for those we love, but we are called on to die in little ways: to give up our own self-interests, our own selfishness, our own comforts, for the sake of others.

So we’re going to look for opportunities this week to love sacrificially.  Doing a chore that’s not our job and not making a big thing of it.  Finding an opportunity to encourage a spouse or child with a kind word that we haven’t offered in a long time.  Picking the neighbor’s trashcan up out of the street when it’s been a windy day.  It doesn’t matter how big or small the thing is we do, what matters is the love we put into it.  When we make the decision to do something little for the sake of love, the joy we find in that act can help us to make it a habit of life, so that those little things become even bigger.  That kind of loving transforms families, heals past hurts, and can even make our little corner of the world a more beautiful place.  The love of God, offered most perfectly in the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, transformed our eternity.  That same love of God, lived in each one of us, can be a catalyst for good in our world.

Mother Theresa once said, “I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I do know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, he will not ask, ‘How many good things have you done in your life?’  Rather he will ask, ‘How much love did you put into what you did?’”  When we are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to love, there is no way we can miss the joy that Jesus wants us to have today.  “Love one another as I have loved you” might be a big challenge, but it absolutely will be the greatest joy of our lives.

Saints Philip and James, Apostles

Today’s readings

Today is the feast of St. Philip and the man we call “St. James the Lesser” because he is probably not the St. James that we know as a relative of Jesus and the traditional author of the book of James.  Unfortunately, all that we know about this St. James is that Jesus chose him as an apostle, and that Jesus appeared to him after his resurrection, as we hear in today’s first reading.  St. Philip we know a bit more about.  We hear of him in the Gospel story of the feeding of the multitudes because he is the one who tells Jesus “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.”  In today’s Gospel we see him again as an apostle who is slow to believe.  “Show us the Father,” he says, “and that will be enough for us.”

So this, I think, is the feast for all of us disciples who don’t put ourselves in the limelight.  Maybe we too have been slow to believe, or were never really sure how to accomplish the mighty deeds God requires of us.  Maybe we’re pretty unknown in discipleship circles.  And maybe that’s good enough for us.  Today’s feast says that’s okay.  It says that our efforts of faith, small though they may be, make us great believers in God’s time and in God’s eyes, led to the Father, as we always are, by our Savior.  It says that we might need a little convincing that we can do the work God asks us to do, but that filled with the Holy Spirit, all things can be accomplished.  It says that we don’t have to be on the front page of the book to live our faith with conviction.

Today is the feast of apostles who are called to make God’s love known despite their imperfections or apparent lack of ability.  It is a feast for all of us who know that we are called by God and led by the Spirit to do great things in Christ.  To Philip and James and all the rest of the Apostles, Jesus said then, “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it.”  Jesus says that to us today, too, all of us disciples who are slow to believe and understand.  “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do.”

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.