The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (Remembrance Mass)

This weekend, we chose to celebrate All Souls at all of the parish Masses on Sunday (which is allowed) as part of our four-week series called “A Crash Course in Catholicism.”

Today, we come together to remember our loved ones who have passed from this life to the hope of the kingdom.  As we continue to grieve their loss, we remember the promises our God has made to us and to them, and we pray that they will all receive the fullness of the fulfillment of those promises.  Here at Saint Mary’s, we are also observing the end of our four-week preaching series called “A Crash Course in Catholicism,” and this week’s topic is, very appropriately, “What happens when we die?”

It’s a very important topic to conclude this four-week series, because it’s a topic that touches every single one of us at one point or another.  The loss of our loved ones, and our own mortality, are universal realities for every single person.  In death, we are united with our Lord, who himself “suffered death and was buried,” as we pray in the Creed at every Sunday Mass.  While death was not in God’s plan for us, the fullness of life in the Kingdom of Heaven certainly was.  Passing through the gates of death, we have the promise of life everlasting.  Jesus came to show us the way through all of that, so that we could be in the place where He and His Father intend to give us the fullness of glory.

As wonderful as this world can be, it has its flaws – we all know that.  It is important that we keep in mind that the fullness of grace and blessing that God wants for us is not on this earth, but rather in the life to come, the glory of heaven, for which we were all created and toward which we must all be straining.  We are travelers in this place; we are only here for a time, and so our time here must be marked by travelling, moving forward, toward that heavenly glory.  This is a story that began at our baptism, continues through our life here on earth, and until we reach the goal of all our lives, our heavenly glory.

There is no one in heaven who is not a saint.  That’s why it’s so important that we join ourselves to God in Christ, that we follow the Way our Lord marked out for us.  We must all become saints so that we can live forever with God.  We should want that for ourselves as much as we do for our departed loved ones.  Becoming a saint is our vocation in this world, that’s the ultimate meaning of life on this earth.  The saints in the Kingdom help us on this journey: their stories are examples for us and their prayers call God’s graces on our lives.  We Catholics don’t worship the saints; we worship God alone.  But we call on the saints for intercession, much as we might call on a friend or loved one to pray for us.  Those saints join us at Mass every time we celebrate it; we all lift up our voices in praise and prayer to God who is the focus of our worship.

I love what the third Eucharistic Prayer offers for Masses for the dead.  We’ll use it this morning, as I do for almost every funeral, but it’s nice sometimes to reflect on those words and let them enter into our prayer more fully.  So the prayer goes: “Remember your servant N. whom you have called from this world to yourself. Grant that he (she) who was united with your Son in a death like his, may also be one with him in his Resurrection…”  Here the Church recognizes that our God does not leave us alone in death.  Death was never God’s will for the human person, rather death came as a result of sin, as Saint Paul reminds us so well.  But in this prayer, the Church recognizes that our God, whose intent is always for our salvation, took on our lowly form and assumed all its defects, including the capacity to die.  And so of the many ways that we are united with our Lord, one of them is through death.  We certainly see death was not the end for him; so if we have faith and follow our Lord, it will not be the end for us either.

The prayer continues: “…when from the earth he will raise up in the flesh those who have died, and transform our lowly body after the pattern of his own glorious body.”  Just as we have been united in death with our Lord, so he intends that we would be united with him in resurrection.  Our Lord intends that the glory of the Resurrection of our Lord would open for us the way to the Kingdom of God, that Kingdom for which we were created in the first place, that Kingdom which is the destination of our life-long journey.  In resurrection, we will be transformed.  The weakness of our flesh will be redeemed, our woundedness will be bound up, our disease will be healed, our sin will be wiped away, leaving nothing but the radiant glory of the very face of God.  Our bodies are not so profane nor so damaged that they can’t become glorious, by being united with our Lord in resurrection.

We continue to pray: “To our departed brothers and sisters, too, and to all who were pleasing to you at their passing from this life, give kind admittance into your kingdom.”  Here the Church acknowledges that the dead depend on our prayers.  We implore the Lord to give admittance to the Kingdom to our loved ones.  We pray that their sins would be forgiven, that their weaknesses would be overlooked, that their relationships would be purified, that whatever was less than glorious in them might be made fit for the Kingdom of God.  The Church recognizes that most of our dead brothers and sisters continue their journey to the Kingdom after death.  We call this reality “Purgatory,” and it is not a punishment so much as it is a gift: a gift of continued purification so that the soul can be made fit to live eternally with the Lord.  Our departed loved ones move in this journey with different, more splendid graces than we have on this earth, and they take it up with perhaps fewer distractions than those that divert our attention from the goal.  Whatever is not purified on earth can be purified by the gift of Purgatory, for those who have faith, and for those who need grace.

Finally, the Church recognizes that we are all headed for the same goal, we and our loved ones who have died: “There we hope to enjoy for ever the fullness of your glory, when you will wipe away every tear from our eyes.  For seeing you, our God, as you are, we shall be like you for all the ages and praise you without end, through Christ our Lord, through whom you bestow in the world all that is good.”  The Kingdom is where all of our sadness is erased, and with eyes free from the tears of this life, we can finally see God as he is, and not as we would have him.  We can then be like him, caught up, really, in his life, one with him forever in Christ, receiving all that is good for all eternity.

Our greatest work of charity is to pray that our deceased loved ones would receive all these graces, these wondrous and holy gifts, from our God, who deeply longs that each one of his children would return to be one with him.  In praying for them, the Church extends its ministry to all of us who mourn, enabling us to know the love of God in our time of grief and sadness.  Jesus is the resurrection and the life, all who believe in him will not die forever.  Death was never intended as our forever, as our final stop.  For to God, all are alive, just in different ways.  Praise God that he gives us life, and mercy, and grace, and resurrection.

Eternal rest grant unto all of our loved ones, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.  May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Amen.

The Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

There’s a principle in the spiritual life known in Greek as kenosis.  Nobody likes to talk about it.  It’s nicer to talk about the consolations of prayer and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and things like that.  But nobody likes to talk about kenosis because, in English, we would translate that something like “self-emptying.”  That means making all the stuff we like or tolerate in us to go away, so that we can be filled up with God.  Now, the being filled up with God isn’t so bad; I think most people would like that.  We would probably say we’re all about the being filled up with God part.  But getting rid of the stuff that’s in there so that we can be filled up with God isn’t so much fun.

Kenosis is what today’s Liturgy of the Word is all about.  The first reading is from the book of Wisdom, which was composed about fifty years before the birth of Jesus. In today’s selection from that book, the Wisdom writer speaks of the just one.  The just one is obnoxious to the unjust, because his example challenges them and his words accuse them.  Nobody likes to have that kind of thing thrown in their face, and so they plot to take the just one’s life, which is exactly, of course, what will happen to Jesus.  So this first reading is a bit of liturgical foreshadowing.

And that’s what Jesus tells his Apostles.  In the Gospel reading, he takes them aside and confides something he doesn’t want to be widely known, at least not yet.  He says that he will be handed over to men who will kill him, and then three days later he will rise.  That’s what we call the Paschal Mystery, and unfortunately not even those Apostles were ready to hear it.  Instead, they engage in a frivolous argument about who was the greatest among them.  Can you imagine their embarrassment when Jesus asked them what they were arguing about along the way?

I can just imagine Jesus’ anguish as he reflected on that truth, knowing that the end was coming near and that he would die a horrifying death, and not even his closest friends could offer him so much as a kind word, let alone reflect on what that might mean for them, and the mission.  And so he confronts them about their embarrassing argument and tells them that the one who would wish to be the greatest must be the lowest of all, serving all the rest.  That was true for him, and it would be true for them too.  Quite frankly, it’s true for us too.  That’s kenosis, and to one degree or another, we are all called to share in it.

Here’s the thing: if the Apostles couldn’t handle a message of kenosis, then it’s going to be challenging for the rest of us too.  Think about it: our society doesn’t teach us to want to be the last of all and the servant of all.  Our society tells us to look out for ourselves and take care of number one.  Our society tells us to strive for every honor and glory for ourselves, to be known as the greatest, much like the Apostles wanted to be in that silly argument.  We even hear about the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” in which televangelists and other preachers tell people how much God wants them to be rich and famous.  Here’s a spiritual pro-tip: God doesn’t care if we’re rich and famous or not, he just wants us to take care of others, have relationship with him, and live the Gospel.

Some of the resistance, too, is internal.  Some of the resistance is because, on some level, we love our sins more than we love Jesus.  Ouch – it hurts to say that, but there’s truth there.  Unless we have the desire to give up our sinfulness, really have a firm purpose of amendment, as the Rite of Penance puts it; unless we want that more than anything, then we can’t want Jesus, or his Kingdom, or the Gospel, or eternal life.  We’ve got to be ready to give up everything that takes up space in our lives if we ever want to inherit the glory that God created us to have.

Imagine you have your hands full of stuff that you really like.  Maybe it’s not the best stuff, but it gives you pleasure and so you hang on to it.  Or maybe it’s not really safe, but it makes you feel comfortable, and that’s as good as it gets right now.  Now someone comes and offers you something much better.  But your hands are full, and you’ve become used to the pleasure or the comfort, and so you don’t have any way to receive, to grab the really good thing you are being offered.  The only way you’re going to be able to receive that good gift is by letting go of the garbage in your hand.  Can you do that?  Can you empty your hands so that you can receive grace?

Because here’s the truth: if we want to enter the Kingdom, we’re going to have to empty ourselves out and get rid of all that nonsense. We’re going to have to repent of our sins, give up every distraction, and focus entirely on our God.  Because nothing that looks like earthly glory and honor and prosperity will fit into heaven. Hanging on to the sin, the selfish ambition, the conceited entitlement will prevent us from filled up with Christ, from receiving his grace, from inheriting eternal life.  We have to get rid of it all: that’s what kenosis looks like for us.  And whether we like to talk about it or not, it’s the only way we’re getting into heaven.

The Twenty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time – Bread of Life Discourse V: So What?

Today’s readings

“So what?”  That’s perhaps the most important question of the spiritual life.  Maybe it’s even the most important question of life, period.  Because after we have all taken time to absorb the information around us, after we have learned all that we have been taught, we have to decide what, if anything, that information and teaching mean for us as human beings.  What is the impact of this information on our lives? What difference does it make to have come to know this?  How will this experience change my life?  So what?

I mention that because I think today’s Liturgy of the Word gives us a “So what?” moment today.  As you know, these past several weeks, we have been reflecting on the “Bread of Life Discourse” as presented in chapter six of the Gospel of John. It all began five weeks ago with Saint John’s telling of the feeding of the multitudes: how thousands of people were fed with just five loaves of bread and two fish.  It was a great miracle of abundance: indeed, the leftovers were even more food than they started with: twelve baskets intended to feed those who couldn’t make it to the banquet, those who hungered throughout the whole world.

Ever since that, in these last three weeks, Jesus has been unpacking the meaning of that miracle for the crowd.  They wanted more food, but he wanted to feed them in much more important ways, in ways that touched the deepest hungers of their lives, in ways that could lead them to the eternal banquet of the Lord where no one would ever hunger or thirst again.  He made a bold claim: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” (John 6:58) And now, the crowds grapple with that information.

Some of them are offended by the notion that he, the carpenter’s son, the one they have known and whose family they have seen, could ever be anything eternal. How on earth could this common man, this one who is one of them, be the Son of God, the Bread of Life, the answer to all their eternal questions?  Others are disgusted that the answer to these eternal questions involved eating his flesh and drinking his blood.  How horrible that he would even suggest such a cannibalistic approach to eternal life! And in today’s passage, we see the impact of all that: some of them leave and return to their former way of life. Those who walked away weren’t just hangers-on or spectators – they were among his disciples.  And then Jesus asks the Twelve – the Apostles – the question of all questions: “Do you also want to leave?”  He might as well have said to them: “So what?”

And, as usual, it’s Saint Peter who expresses the faith of these twelve men: “Master, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  For them, at least, the “So what?” moment had led them to recognize something deeper in this miracle of feeding and in the words of this uncommon common man, and that something was the possibility of an eternity, which would never be possible without Jesus.  Of course, they couldn’t have known the full meaning of that statement of faith, or the cost of it, but they would certainly see it all unfold in the death and resurrection of Christ, which would solidify their faith: well, for all but one of them.

For me, the prayer of Saint Peter: “Master to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life” has played a particularly important role.  It’s come up more than once in my journey of faith. I remember in my young adulthood, before I went to seminary, having a crisis in my own faith.  Even though I was always going to Mass, for a time I had also been attending Willow Creek – the big megachurch up in Barrington – with my friends.  The music was nice and the sermons sounded good.  But along the way my pastor, Father Mike O’Keefe of blessed memory, called me in and had a “come to Jesus” with me.  It was irritating at the time, but now I couldn’t be more grateful.  I remember he told me, “Patrick, I know you would never be able to go to the chapel and stand in front of the Tabernacle and say that Jesus wasn’t there.”  I took a while to think about that, and one night when I went to Willow Creek they were having their monthly communion.  They passed around bread and grape juice and I realized that Father Mike was right: Jesus was in the Tabernacle, not there at Willow Creek, and that I would never be able to live without the Sacraments of the Church.  In retrospect, that moment was pivotal in my vocational call. Father Mike’s fatherly pastoring of me and gentle rebuke helped me to see that I couldn’t leave the Catholic Church: “Master to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

A few years later, when I was in seminary, that prayer became important again.  I started seminary in fall of 2001, and in the spring of that year, the clergy sexual abuse scandals broke open.  Half of my class left seminary that year, and by the end of my time at Mundelein the 23 of us who started together dwindled to just eight of us who graduated.  Plenty of times in those five years, I wondered if I should leave too.  Why would I want to get involved in the priesthood at this moment in our Church’s history – this painful moment?  As I prayed about it over and over, I kept getting the same answer, over and over: “Master to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

In my last parish, I followed a beloved pastor who was very ill and had passed away a few months before I was asked to go there.  The people there, because of his illness, had coalesced in a way that they carried the burden of the parish duties and really were able to exist without an active pastor. So when I went there, it was more than difficult.  They hadn’t come to know me or my love for them yet – indeed, I hadn’t come to know my love for them yet.  And so I asked the Lord if I could leave my vocation.  His answer, obviously, wasn’t “yes.”  And the prayer that kept coming back to me was: “Master to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

In these last days, with the resurgence of the scandals in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, I’ve found myself praying those words again.  It’s hard to be a priest right now; it’s hard to be Catholic.  If you’ve found yourself wanting to throw in the towel and leave it all behind, I dare say you’re not alone.  If you’re angry and hurt and disappointed and frustrated, then you and I have some common feelings.  But I have to believe in the power and presence of Christ our God in the Eucharist. That in these five weeks, the blessing of the Real Presence: Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity is what keeps me coming back, helps me get out of bed each morning.  In fact, that gift makes me want to be a better priest, a better Catholic, every single day.  Because only Jesus’ Eucharistic presence in the Church has the key to my eternal life. Where else on earth would I ever want to go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Purgatory

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

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

Thursday of the Twentieth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This morning’s Gospel parable is admittedly a bit of a head scratcher. It almost seems to portray our God in a rather unfavorable light, comparing him to a capricious king who destroys whole cities after being snubbed by some invited guests, and then tosses out a visitor who seems to have come to the banquet poorly dressed. But obviously, that surface-level reading of the parable is inadequate, and the invitation it brings is worth reading deeper.

So, put plainly, the banquet is the Eucharist, given for all. The wedding is the marriage of God with his people, which makes us one with him and opens up the possibility of eternity for those who accept it. Those guests who refused to come were the leaders of the Jewish people, who should have been looking for the feast and have welcomed it with eager longing. But instead they mistreated and murdered the servant-messengers, who were the prophets who announced God’s reign and helped forge the covenant.

So those pulled in off the streets to share in the banquet are everyone else who hears the Word of God and responds to it. The guest thrown out for improper attire are those who accept the invitation of Christ with their lips, but remain clothed in the filthy garments of worldly desire and ambition instead of giving themselves to the marriage completely.

So, if it’s not already obvious, we are among those pulled in off the streets. We have heard the Word of God and know his desire to be one with us. The question is, what kind of garments have we been wearing? Are we clothed in that white garment of pure desire for God that is given us in Holy Baptism, or have we cast that beautiful vesture aside for the filth of the world?

Monday of the Twentieth Week of Ordinary Time 

So the question today is, what is it that holds us back? The rich young man seemed to have it all together: he acknowledged Jesus as the good teacher, so he must have been familiar with what Jesus said and did. He says he kept all the commandments, so he certainly had a religious upbringing and was zealous to follow the law. But, with all that, he still knew that something was lacking. “What do I still lack?” he asks. When Jesus reveals that the next step in following the Gospel involves letting go of his worldly possessions, he finds that to be somewhere he can’t go. He had many possessions, and he wasn’t yet ready to give them up.

So back to my first question. What holds us back? Is it many possessions? Or is it our work, or status, or what the neighbors might think? It could be that we don’t want to get out of our comfort zone and follow Christ according to the way he is calling us. Whatever it is, it involves letting go – giving up what is not God and clinging to him alone. It’s not that Jesus didn’t want the rich young man to have money. He wanted him to have eternal life. And whenever we cling to what is not God, we are in grave danger of giving up eternal life. 

We have to be ready to let go of whatever holds us back from accepting the life that God wants for us. What he has is so much better than whatever it is we’re holding on to. So the question is, will we give up what is holding us back, or will we give up eternal life? We’re going to have to live with the answer to that question for a very, very long time. 

The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night

I have to let you in on a little secret tonight.  Very often, when we preach a homily, the message ends up being for us preachers.  It’s not that we set out to do that; actually if we thought about it I’m pretty sure we would avoid it at all costs.  It’s just that when we pray about our homily, and we write it with the inspiration of the Spirit, after we preach it, we often sit down and say, “Oh.  You were talking to me, weren’t you, God?”

Lent has been like that for me.  Back when I picked the theme that we have been using to guide our reflection during these somber days, “Rediscover Our Need for a Savior,” I thought it was a clever way to hearken back to the book we gave out at Christmas, Rediscover Catholicism.  But as we’ve reflected and preached our way through Lent, I’ve found the message to be quite personal, more so than I would have intended.  I hope that you too have had the opportunity to rediscover a relationship with Christ that maybe wasn’t as fervent as it should be.  Lent is supposed to do that for us.

For me, these Triduum days have been amazing reminders of why I need a Savior.  As we hear the Scriptures and watch the Liturgy unfold, we can’t help but be reminded of the awesome price our Lord paid for each one of us on that Cross.  On Friday, I looked at the cross and remembered it was my sins that put him there.  I remembered that it was my brokenness that he suffered to redeem.  And most of all, I remembered that God loved me enough that not doing it was completely out of the question.  He did that, for me.

We do indeed need a Savior, all of us personally, but also as a society.  All you have to do is turn on the news and everything you hear points to a desperate, urgent need for salvation.  This world would have us accept the darkness and say it’s good enough.  This world would have us live for today, with no thought to an eternity that it really doesn’t acknowledge anyway.  This world would say there is no need for a Savior, because we’re good enough to do what we need to do.  But the world is dead wrong.

We can’t possibly ever make up for our many sins personally and as a society all by ourselves.  We have constantly made choices that take us out of friendship with God and put us on paths that lead nowhere good.  If we’re honest, all of us would admit that.  It takes a Savior who loves us more than we deserve to set things right.

And the thing is, we have that Savior.  Right here and right now.  This is the night.  Not some distant long-past night, but this night is the night, when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose triumphant from the underworld!  We keep vigil on this night because our celebration of this Most Holy Vigil brings us into communion with every believer from every time and place and with our Savior as he bursts forth from the underworld.

This night changes everything.  The ancient foe is defeated, the sentence of condemnation has been remitted, even sinful Adam is raised up from death to new life.  As an ancient homilist wrote in today’s Office of Readings, “God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.”  No power of any kind can keep our God’s salvation from coming to fruition.  Christ’s obedience on the Cross, suffering the sentence for our sins, rising from the dead, all of this gives us hope of eternal glory on that great day when we meet our God face to face.

And this is possible for one very simple reason: we have a Savior.  Our Risen Lord is the one who urges us to toss aside our water jugs and receive living water; he urges us to wash away our blindness and see ourselves, our God, and other people the way they really are; he beckons us forth from the graves that have kept us from friendship with God for too long, untying the bandages of our sinful nature.  He gives us the opportunity for eternity, and all we have to do is to allow the fire of his glory to be ignited in our hearts.  All we have to do is acknowledge our need for a Savior, and embrace his cross in order to receive his resurrection.

Because as I sang a while ago, our birth would have been no gain had we not been redeemed.  Who cares if we were born if all there is is this paltry existence?  Why would we want to be born if there is no eternity, no possibility of anything past this life, fraught as it often is with hardship and pain?  But on this night, this very night, that depressing prospect is given a proper burial, that darkness is set ablaze by the new fire, and our cries of anguish and despair give way to shouts of “Alleluia!”

Brothers and sisters, we all need a Savior.  And that Savior is the one morning star who never sets: Jesus Christ our Lord who, coming back from death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on all humanity, and lives and reigns for ever and ever!  Amen!  Alleluia!

Sixth Day in the Octave of Christmas

Today’s readings

So what did you get for Christmas?  Was it everything you’d hoped for?  Perhaps you, like me, feel that the gifts are nice, but being together with family and friends at Christmas is the real gift.  Today’s first reading is exhorting us to something similar.  While the rest of the world waits in line for hours to get the coveted gift of the year, we have the consolation of knowing that nothing like that is ultimately important, or will ever make us truly happy.  The real gift that we can receive today, and every day, is the gift of Jesus, the Word made flesh, our Savior come to be one with us as Emmanuel.

St. John tells us quite clearly: “Do not love the world or the things of the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”  Because what we have is so much better than anything the world can give.  The real gift this Christmas, and really every day, is the gift of eternal life.  And we have that gift because Jesus came to earth and chose to be one with us in our human nature.  That’s why the angels sang that night, and why we sing his praise every day of our lives.

Monday of the Twentieth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So the question today is, what is it that holds us back?  The rich young man seemed to have it all together: he acknowledged Jesus as the good teacher, so he must have been familiar with what Jesus said and did.  He says he kept all the commandments, so he certainly had a religious upbringing and was zealous to follow the law.  But, with all that, he still knew that something was lacking.  “What do I still lack?” he asks.  When Jesus reveals that the next step in following the Gospel involves letting go of his worldly possessions, he finds that to be somewhere he can’t go.  He had many possessions, and he wasn’t yet ready to give them up.

So back to my first question.  What holds us back?  Is it many possessions?  Or is it our work, or power, or what the neighbors might think.  It could be that we don’t want to get out of our comfort zone and follow Christ according to the way he is calling us.  Whatever it is, it involves letting go – giving up what is not God and clinging to him alone.  It’s not that Jesus didn’t want the rich young man to have money.  He wanted him to have eternal life.  And whenever we cling to what is not God, we are in grave danger of giving up eternal life.

We have to be ready to let go of whatever holds us back from accepting the life that God wants for us.  What he has is so much better than whatever it is we’re holding on to.  So the question is, will we give up what is holding us back, or will we give up eternal life?  We’re going to have to live with the answer to that question for a very, very long time.

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