The Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

One of the most basic spiritual principles is that the Christian life looks like something.  The Christian looks like something.  Perhaps we ought to change that to “looks like someone,” that someone of course being Jesus Christ.

In the Liturgy of the Hours, which clergy and others pray each day, today there is a reading from a section of Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constituition on the Church in the Modern World from Vatican II.  The line that jumped out at me was this one: “Man’s worth is greater because of what he is than because of what he has.”  So the Christian doesn’t look like her or his possessions; doesn’t look like what he does, but rather what he is.  And what she or he is is what Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel reading.

Jesus gives us the images of salt and light, and I think those are very familiar images for us to grasp.  We all use salt and light every day, and it is interesting to hear Jesus say that that is what we are.  Anyone who cooks, or even anyone who eats, will tell you of the value of salt.  I like to watch the television show Chopped on the Food Network.  On that show, four chefs compete to make something edible of a basket of disparate and perhaps even bizarre ingredients.  Then three judges sample their dishes and decide who is not moving on to the next round; they are “chopped.”  At the end, one of them wins a bunch of money.  I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen on that show get “chopped” because they under-seasoned their food.  A pinch of salt might be what got between them and ten thousand dollars!

So the Christian is salt for the world; we are called to season the world with joy and goodness and concern for the poor and genuine love, based on the Gospel.  But Jesus wonders what would happen if that salt were to lose its flavor.  Now I can’t imagine salt losing its saltiness.  In fact, I googled this one time and found a chemist who took this question on.  He indicated that salt, in its crystalline form, is pretty stable; it doesn’t lose its flavor.  So Jesus was using, as he often does, hyperbole to get our attention.  Suppose for the moment that salt could lose its saltiness: what would it then be good for?  Well, nothing, of course.

But Jesus seems to be saying that we, as the salt for the world, could lose our saltiness.  For example, we could become under-seasoned by skipping Mass to attend a sports event or sleep in.  We could become under-seasoned by neglecting our prayer life.  We could become under-seasoned by watching the wrong things on TV or surfing the wrong sites on the internet.  We could become under-seasoned by holding on to relationships that are sinful.  And when that starts to happen, our ability to season our world with the presence of Christ is diminished, little by little.  Our salt loses its saltiness.

And then we have the image of light.  When I preach this text for children, I often ask them how many of them are or ever had been afraid of the dark.  Lots of hands go up, as you can well imagine.  I think that’s probably true of all of us on some level; the darkness is a scary place.  There are all sorts of obstacles in the dark that could cause us to trip and fall, and you never know what might befall you on a dark and scary road.  All of us have had those experiences when we are in the dark, and it’s not a fun place to be.

So what do you do when you find yourself in the dark?  Well, you turn on the light, of course. The light changes everything: you can see the obstacles over which you might have fallen.  Anything lurking in the dark will now be identified in the light.  Sometimes a quick look around with the lights on will assure you that that noise you heard was just the house settling, or the furnace firing up, or something similarly innocuous.  The light just makes you feel a little safer.

And so we are called to be light too.  We don’t need much time to think about how dark our world can be at times.  We see on television the news about war and crime and terrorism and new diseases and things we shouldn’t be eating.  We hear about children bullying one another and people stalking others on the internet.  A quick moment of reflection reminds us of our own sinfulness; the bad that we have done and the good we have failed to do.  Darkness in our world can be pretty pervasive at times, and it makes the world a rather frightening place.

But we have the light.  We’ve been exposed to the light.  We have come alive in Jesus, the Light of the world – that’s what we celebrated last weekend during our feast of the Presentation of the Lord.  As those gifted with the Light of the world, we become people of light.  We become light for the world too.  Jesus insists that our light should shine so brightly that we affect the darkness of our world, completely overcoming that darkness with the Light of Christ.  He insists that we are now that city, set on a hill, that cannot be hidden.  

St. Therese of Liseaux used to talk about doing little things with great love for the glory of God.  She found joy in her “Little Way” and it has inspired so many people ever since.  Our Liturgy today calls us to do little things and big things, all for God’s glory.  It calls us to be salt for a world grown bland with despair and light for a world dwelling in a very dark place.  In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah tells us how to do it:

Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless;
clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…

If neglecting our prayer life and our integrity causes us to lose our saltiness, if giving in to shame and despair puts out our light, then we can never do what we were created for.  But we have been given salt and light to season and light our world.  We are the city set on the hill for all the watching world to see.  Would that they might see us doing little things and big things, all for the glory of God.

The Thirty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

What if this life was all there was?  I’m sure you know some people who think that.  I’m not sure how people who think that can get out of bed in the morning, let alone keep on living day after day. Questions about life and death and last things and life after the last things are what’s going on in the Church’s mind and imagination in these last days of the Church year.

It’s little wonder these questions grab us in these waning days of the year. The trees are losing their foliage. The daylight hours are getting shorter. The air is a bit colder, unseasonably so these days.  It’s as if winter can’t wait to get here!  We can sense there is a change approaching, and perhaps it isn’t one that we look forward to.  Even with the festive atmosphere of the upcoming holidays, or perhaps even because of the holidays, many of us feel depressed or blasé, and the festivity of the holiday season only serves to highlight it for us.  Please God, let there be something more.

Fundamentally, we human beings need to make connections.  We want life, we want light, we want peace, we want love.  And because we want all these things, we know we are alive.  We attempt to fill them up as best we can.  We hope that our attempts are healthy, but honestly sometimes we find ourselves stuck and attempt to fill our desires with things that are well, just shoddy.  We anesthetize ourselves with drugs or alcohol or internet pornography or retail therapy.  We enter into relationships that are unhealthy.  We work ourselves to death. We distance ourselves from loved ones.  We sin.  We often just try to fill up the something more that we desire with something less than that of which we are worthy.

And that’s exactly what the Sadducees were doing in today’s Gospel reading.  The Sadducees, we are told, were a group of religious authorities that taught there was no resurrection.  So these Sadducees come to Jesus and seem to have an earnest question.  They speak of a woman seven times widowed and wonder whose wife she will be in the resurrection of the dead.  Except that their question wasn’t earnest at all.  Clearly they were out to discredit Jesus, even embarrass him.  “So you think there will be a resurrection,” they say, “well then, what about this…?”

The Sadducees didn’t get it when it came to the resurrection, and they weren’t willing to open their minds to any kind of new possibility.  If what Jesus said didn’t fit what they believed, then it absolutely must be wrong.  They were filling their desires with the sin of pride instead of the possibility of eternal life.  What a horrible, shoddy way to fill up their desires!

But swing that around and look at the seven brothers in the first reading.  All they would have to do was eat a little pork and they could have lived.  I mean, who’s going to begrudge them a little bacon?!  Yet they patently refused to do so.  One by one, they are tortured and killed.  Why would they have let themselves be treated that way?  All they had to do was eat some pork, for heaven’s sake; surely God would forgive them, right?  But listen to what the first brother says: “You are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever.  It is for his laws that we are dying.”  These brothers and their mother realized that there was something greater, something more.  They knew their desire could never be filled up with a little pork, or the shoddy life that would come about as a result of giving up their beliefs.  What a stark contrast they are to the prideful Sadducees!

We may be tempted to settle for something less, but we know there is something so much better in store for us.  There is something that will fill up our desires once and for all, and that something – or rather that someone –  is Jesus Christ.  It’s not going to be our pride, boasting of our elaborate wisdom or ability to take care of ourselves.  It’s not going to be a little pork, or giving in to whatever temptation comes our way to take us off the path.  It’s not going to be alcohol, or drugs, or unhealthy relationships or self-help gurus, or anything else.  It’s only going to be Jesus – only Jesus! – who will fill up the desires that touch us to the core of who we are.

The Church in these waning days of the Church year would never deny that there is suffering in the world.  But she will encourage us to open up our desires to be filled with our Savior who comes not to make our suffering go away, but instead to fill it up and sanctify it with his presence.  There is something more, and we can expect to be filled up with it when we realize that the fit for the hole we have in our hearts is Jesus Christ.

That, friends, is why it is so important that we gather as believers every Sunday, and avail ourselves of the other sacraments, especially reconciliation, on a regular basis.  We have an unquenchable desire that can only be filled up with Christ, that Christ who longs to be our life, who died to be our savior, who rose to be our salvation.

Our God is not a God of the dead, but of the living.  To him all are alive.  So in these last days of the year, if we find ourselves desiring peace, desiring wholeness, desiring comfort, desiring love, desiring fulfillment, or desiring anything else, that’s okay.  Because what we’re really desiring is Christ, and he is always there to fill us beyond our wildest imaginings.

Thursday after Epiphany

Today’s readings

The feast of Epiphany is a celebration of the fact that Christian life looks like something.  Because Jesus has appeared on the earth and taken our own human form, because he has walked among us and lived our life and died our death, we know what the Christian Way looks like.  We know that the Christian life consists of embracing our humanity, with all its weaknesses and imperfections.  We know that it consists of living our own lives well, mindful of the needs of others, forgiving as we have been forgiven, and spreading the light of the Gospel wherever it is that God puts us.  The Galileans in the synagogue in today’s Gospel were amazed at Jesus’ speaking words of grace.  We too are called to do this so that all will recognize in us the presence of Christ.

Because Christ is still manifest among us.  Every encounter with someone else is an opportunity for Epiphany.  It is an opportunity for us to look for the presence of Christ in that other person, and for them to see Christ at work in us.  How we do that depends on the situation, certainly, but it must always be our top priority if we are eager to be called Christians.  John’s words in the first reading are clear, and are words of indictment on those times we forget to be the Epiphany to others: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

Christ is made manifest in all of us and among all of us.  In the ordinariness of our lives, we can find Christ’s grace abundantly blessing us, or we can reject it.  If we make it our priority to be Christ’s presence in the world in every encounter with a brother or sister, we may find that we are blessed with epiphany upon epiphany, constantly growing in God’s grace.  This is all part of our faith, of course, and it is this faith, as John tells us, that conquers the world.

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Today's readings [display_podcast]

As we have gathered these last several weeks to continue our celebration of Easter, maybe you noticed that we have always had a reading from the Acts of the Apostles as our first reading.  In these readings, we have been hearing about an almost idyllic community, a community that has shared its resources, taken care of the poor, and even worked through a dispute with a grace that is rarely seen anywhere.  If you’re like me, it’s almost hard to relate to such an exalted community, and maybe you find yourself wondering why we would read these readings, when they only contradict the way Christians really live in the world.

I had a seminary professor who used to tell us “the Christian life looks like something,” “discipleship looks like something.”  If we don’t have a picture of what discipleship means or know something about how the Christian life looks, then we have nothing at all to strive for.  So, even though the First Community in the book of Acts seems a little out of step with our experience, if we never read about them, well, then we’d have nothing to strive for, no goal to achieve.  Today’s readings, in particular, I think, give us a picture of what the Christian life looks like.  Our Liturgy of the Word has proclaimed to us that the Christian believers’ lives are marked by joy, holiness of life, and love.  Let’s take a look at each of these.

First of all, the Christian believer’s life is marked by joy.  We saw that pretty clearly in the first reading.  “There was great joy in that city,” the Acts writer tells us, and for pretty good reason.  The particular reason for their joy was that “unclean spirits, crying out in a loud voice, came out of many possessed people, and many paralyzed or crippled people were cured.”  Anyone who experiences such radical, miraculous blessings cannot help but be overcome by joy.  But again, how close is that to our experience?  When was the last time you saw Fr. Ted or me walk into a room and evil spirits came out of people with loud cries?  Sometimes I’m at a meeting where I wish I could do that, but I digress…

The point is that we believers are all on for exorcising demons and binding up the wounds of the broken and healing those who are paralyzed.  Because people are possessed by all sorts of demons: addictions, sinful behavior, ignorance, just to name a few.  When any of us witnesses to those people, walks with them through their pain, or mentors them, we are exorcising their demons.  And people are paralyzed by all sorts of things.  Failure, grief, and depression paralyze people all the time.  Whenever one of us reaches out to someone in those conditions and helps them to get back on their feet, we are healing them.  And that kind of healing, that kind of exorcism, goes on all the time.  And because of that, there should always be great joy in Naperville.

Teilhard de Chardin wrote that “joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”  Those of us who have been healed or forgiven, those of us who have been raised up out of our weakness know that it is through the presence of God that that has happened.  God may may well be working through the hands and lips of one of our brothers or sisters, because that is often the way that he chooses to make known his abiding presence.  Maybe the demons don’t all go away at once, and maybe it takes a little therapy before we can really walk steadily once we’re back on our feet, but God is present in all of that, and for that we should not cease to celebrate with great joy.  We are called to a joy that persists even amid the stormy times of life, a joy that we can find in those who reach out to us, or gratitude for small blessings.  My grandmother used to say, “Thank God for small favors!”  We are a people who are blessed even when our life is a mess, because God is still and always present to us.  The Christian believer’s life is marked by joy.

Secondly, the Christian believer’s life is marked by holiness of life.  This is a tough one and we would probably all be quick to object that we are not, nor could we ever be, truly holy.  But this is not the time for self-deprecating false humility.  Until we accept the fact that every single one of us, through our baptism, is consecrated, set aside and called to be a saint – yes, a saint – until we realize that and accept it, we have not even begun to live the Christian life.  Listen to what St. Peter says to us in our second reading once again:

Always be ready to give an explanation
to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope,
but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear,
so that, when you are maligned,
those who defame your good conduct in Christ
may themselves be put to shame.
For it is better to suffer for doing good,
if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.

So he calls us to three specific forms of holiness here: hopefulness rooted in Christ, gentleness and reverence to all people, and clarity of conscience.  We have to have a hope that is rooted in Christ.  Some days, it’s hard for some people to find any reason to go on.  But even when everything seems to be falling apart, there is still Christ.  Even if we think we are worthless, we certainly are not, because God created us in his image, and sent his Son to redeem us.  We have been purchased at a very great cost, and so it is with this confidence in Christ’s love for us that we can be hopeful people who look toward the future with conviction and courage.  But even in doing that, we are called to be gentle and reverent to all.  We have absolutely no business being engaged in racism, hatred, or even moral self-righteousness.  We are made good and redeemed by God, but so is everyone else on the planet.  We have no right to treat anyone with anything less than gentleness and reverence.  And finally, we are to be people of clean conscience.  This means avoiding scandal, not getting caught up in anything remotely immoral, always providing all people with a holy example, so that no one will be led astray.  This means we have to flee all sorts of evils, all kinds of obstacles that would and will drag us down if we let them.  In hope, reverence, gentleness, and clarity of conscience, the Christian believer is marked by holiness of life.

Finally, the believer’s life is marked by love.  In the last two sentences of the Gospel reading today, Jesus uses the word “love” four distinct times.  Listen again: “Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.  And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him.”  As my father used to say, “actions speak louder than words,” and so the love we are called to is a love that is evident by the way that we live and the way that we treat others, more so than a sentimental, warm fuzzy love where we’re all joining hands and singing “Kumbaya.”  Jesus is very specific here that the love we are called to is a love that begins with God and returns to God, a love that manifests itself in following the commandments.  The commandments of Jesus are also wrapped up in love.  Remember that in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus is asked which of the commandments is most important, he says, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and the first commandment. 
The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matthew 22:37-39)

So Jesus tells us today that we are called to love by keeping his commandments, and these commandments consist in loving God and neighbor, the commandment that distinguishes the Judaeo-Christian way of life.  In today’s Gospel, it almost seems like it’s a quid-pro-quo kind of love: “whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him.”  But we know this is not true.  We can love each other and love God because God loved us first, and loves us best.  Even when we are clearly unworthy of it, God’s love still draws us back to him.  We celebrate a season of God’s love right now: we remember that nothing, not even the cross and grave could stand in the way of God’s love for us.  What is happening in today’s Gospel is that Jesus is calling us to love in that same way.  Our love, too, must be unconditional, sacrificial, laying down our lives for one another and for our witness to God in Christ.  The Christian believer’s life is marked by love.

I’m sure at this point you’re thinking, “thanks Father Pat, none of this makes me feel like living the Christian life is any easier, any closer to something I can do.”  And you’re right.  You can’t.  I can’t.  None of us is ever capable of persistent, abiding joy, of holiness of life, or of unconditional, sacrificial love all on our own.  We just don’t have the capability for that kind of living.  But the good news is that we don’t have to be the ones to do it.  We who often fail to find joy in our living, we who struggle for holiness of life and fall flat on our face on our better days, we who yearn to be able to love as we are loved, we are given the incredible grace of the Holy Spirit to be able to make it happen.  Having converted Samaria to the faith, the early Christian community sent them Peter and John.  When they got there, they prayed for the newly-baptized Samaritans and it was then that they received the Holy Spirit.  In our Gospel today, Jesus says, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth…”  We who are baptized in Christ and anointed with the spirit have the special grace to be surprised by joy seemingly out of nowhere, to find strength to make a difficult choice for holiness of life, and to love those in our lives that are sometimes seemingly unlovable.  We do all of this guided by the strength and grace of the Holy Spirit, who is just as much a part of our lives as the air we breathe.  This gift of the Holy Spirit is why the Psalmist today can sing, “Come and see the works of God, his tremendous deeds among the children of Adam.” And we can reply, “Alleluia!  Let all the earth cry out to God with joy!  Alleluia!”

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