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 so we have an invitation to read perhaps a bit deeper.

Put very 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 should 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.

Those then who were 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? If it’s been the latter, filthy garment we have been wearing, today’s message is that it is time to wash them white in the Blood of the Lamb, the one who came to give his life that we might be wedded to him for all eternity.

The Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time – Bread of Life Discourse IV: Choosing the Table of the Lord

Today’s readings

Today we have set before us two tables.  One is the incredibly rich banquet of wisdom, and the other…  let’s call it the fast food of foolishness, I guess.  What we need to ask ourselves today is, at which table have we been eating, and is that where we want to find our nourishment?

We see in today’s first reading the personification of wisdom.  Wisdom is seen as a female character who has made preparations for a luxurious meal.  Meat has been prepared, and that was a luxury in biblical times.  Wine has been mixed, probably with spices to improve its flavor and make it a bit more potent.  But the invitation has gone out not to the rich and powerful, but the simple and those who lack understanding.  These are the ones who are called to the banquet of wisdom to partake of this incredible meal.  They will feast on the rich meat of understanding and be carried away by the potency of the wine of enlightenment.  But coming to that table requires turning away from foolishness, and it is only by doing so and eating at this table that one can live.

The second reading, too, speaks of this choice, but with a tone of warning: be sure to live not as foolish persons but as wise – watch carefully, St. Paul warns, how you live.  He acknowledges that the days in which the Ephesians were living were evil ones, something to which, I think, every generation can relate – no generation ever fails to experience evil in some way at some time.  Certainly we have seen that in the past few weeks with the return of clergy sexual abuse scandals, a sadness and humiliation for all who strive to follow the Gospel in the Catholic Church.  And so, to combat evil, they – and we – are warned to aspire to right conduct.  Certainly, we are unable to fix all the evil in the world on our own, but we can control what goes on in us.  We need to eradicate every source of evil in every aspect of our lives so that evil won’t have a feedbed on which to thrive.

Saint Paul calls us to try to understand the will of God, the project of all our lives.  Don’t live in drunkenness, he warns, whether caused by wine or just by immersing oneself into the foolishness of the world around you.  Instead, we are called to be people of prayer, following God’s will, singing God’s praise, “giving thanks always and for everything.”  The word thanks here is, in Greek, eucharisteo, of course, meaning we are to live as Eucharistic people, aware of God’s blessings, and thankful for the grace we have received.

All of this serves as a fitting prelude to the choice Jesus’ audience is facing in today’s Gospel.  They have been mesmerized by the feeding of the multitudes that we heard about a few weeks ago, as we began our little immersion in the “Bread of Life Discourse” which is the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.  And they have been hanging in there as Jesus has unpacked the meaning of that event in the time that has followed.  But now, they have to come to terms with all of it.  Many are repulsed, understandably, I think, at the notion of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of another person.  And so now they have to decide if this is something they can live with.  Next week, in the Gospel, we will see how that shakes out.  But ironically, as we now know, this is something they – and we – cannot live without.

As we come to worship today, we have been dining at one of the other of the tables ourselves.  Have we been dining at the table of foolishness?  Have we tried living by mere human wisdom; put our security and trust in material things; relied on temporary and superficial appearances and even put off feeding our spirits to another time?  Have we surfed the web to find wisdom, and gotten bogged down in the nonsense that lurks there?  Have we glued ourselves to television and hung on the words of politicians or other experts whose expertise is questionable at best, or been lost in the banal world of reality TV?  Those of us who are well educated may have thought book learning would give us answers to life’s imponderables.  Perhaps the results have left us still hungry; like trying to fill our stomachs eating lettuce soup.  We may feel some initial satisfaction, but it soon passes and all we can think of is where we can find food.  We have been dining at the wrong table.

And so wisdom calls out to us simple ones to pull up a chair to the right banquet.  Feasting on the richness of wisdom leads us inevitably to the banquet of the Lord.  Will we be repulsed at the idea of eating the flesh and blood of our Lord, or will we set aside the so-called wisdom of the world and embrace the real wisdom of God, which is so far beyond our understanding?  Jesus says to us today that we can become part of God, indeed that is the whole point.  We were created to become part of God’s life, to be caught up in him, and to be part of him.  But the problem is, our dining on the fast food of foolishness, the so-called “wisdom” of this world, has left us sinful and sorrowful, with an emptiness that cannot be filled up in that way.

And so God did the only thing he could do.  If we could not be part of him because of our foolishness, he decided to become part of us.  He sent his son Jesus into our world to walk among us, to live our life, to walk on the earth as we do.  Jesus ultimately gave himself for us, offering his body and blood for our salvation, giving us this great nourishment so that he could become part of us in a similar way to the way all food becomes part of us.  As we dine at the table of the Lord, our God who wanted us to become part of him becomes part of us, and so we are caught up again into his life as we were always supposed to have been.

Jesus fed several thousand people with five loaves and two fish a few weeks ago.  But that was nothing.  It was a mere drop in the bucket compared to what he wants to do now.  Now he wants to give himself so that we can be one with him:

For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him.

People who content themselves in eating the food of this world – even if it’s manna from heaven – will still die.  But those – and only those – who eat the bread that is Jesus will live forever.  That’s what Jesus tells us today.  Because it is only by Jesus becoming part of us that we can become part of God, which is the fulfillment of our destiny as creatures of our God.  This is a hard teaching, and we may struggle with it in the same way the crowds struggled with it when Jesus said it.  But this is Truth; this is the wisdom of God; this is the way we get filled up so that we never hunger again.

And so which table will we choose now?  Please God let us follow the Psalmist’s advice: Taste and see the goodness of the Lord!

The Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time – Bread of Life Discourse III: Bread for the Journey

Today’s readings

You may have heard of Viaticum, which we generally think of as one’s last Communion. Indeed, the Church encourages us by precept of the Church to receive Holy Communion in our last moments, if at all possible.  The word viaticum is Latin for “bread for the journey.”  So in our last moments, when we set out on our journey to the life that is to come, we are fed with that Food that sustains us.  It’s a commendable practice and I highly encourage it.

Today we see the Scriptural basis for viaticum, that bread for the journey.  In the first reading, the prophet Elijah has had just about enough, thank you very much.  Despite some successes in preaching the word of the Lord, he has felt that he is a failure.  Today’s reading comes after Elijah, with God’s help, just defeated all the prophets of the false god Baal in a splendid display of pyrotechnics on Mount Carmel.  It’s a wonderful story that you can find in chapter 18 of the first book of Kings, and your homework today is to go home and look it up!  I promise, you’ll enjoy the story.  Well after that outstanding success, one would expect Elijah to go about boasting of his victory.  Instead, Jezebel, the king’s wife and the one who brought the prophets of Baal to Israel in the first place, pledges to take Elijah’s life.  Today’s story, then, finds him sitting under a scraggly broom tree, which offered little if any shade, and praying for death.  For him it would be better for the Lord to take his life than to die by Jezebel’s henchmen.  The Lord ignores his prayer and instead twice makes him get up and eat bread that God himself provides, so that he would be strengthened for the journey.  In the story that follows, Elijah will come quite face-to-face with God, and be refreshed to go on.  But he can’t do that if he starves to death under the broom tree.  Sometimes God does not give us what we ask for, but exactly what we need.

Our Gospel reading takes us back to Saint John’s “Bread of Life Discourse.”  We usually read from the Gospel of Mark during this liturgical year, but since Mark is shorter than Matthew and Luke, we have a five-week opportunity during the summer to hear John’s Eucharistic Theology beautifully told in the sixth chapter of his Gospel.  We began two weeks ago with the feeding of the multitudes; then last week the multitudes sought Jesus out so they could get more of the same and Jesus sets out to feed their spirits.  At the end of last week’s Gospel, Jesus told them that Moses didn’t give them bread from heaven, but rather God did; and then he made a very bold claim: “I am the bread of life.”  So this week, the people are angry with Jesus for that claim, for saying that he came down from heaven.  They murmured because they knew his family, and surmised that he couldn’t have descended from heaven.  They didn’t yet understand the depth of who Jesus was.  They were so hungry that they didn’t realize that the finest spiritual banquet stood right before them.

The thing is, spiritual hunger is something we all face in one way or another.  We all have very difficult journeys to face in our lives.  Whether we’re feeling dejected and defeated like Elijah, or feeling cranky and irritable like the Ephesians, or whether we’re just feeling superior and murmuring like the Jews in today’s Gospel, spiritual hunger is something we all must face sometime in our lives.  From time to time, we all discover in ourselves a hole that we try to fill with something.  Maybe we try to fill that up with alcohol, or too much work, or too much ice cream, or the wrong kind of relationships, or whatever; and eventually we find that none of that fills up the hole in our lives.  Soon we end up sitting under a scraggly old broom tree, wishing that God would take us now.  If we’re honest, we’ve all been at that place at one time or another in our lives.

We disciples know that there is only one thing – or rather one person – that can fill up that emptiness.  And that person is Jesus Christ.  This Jesus knows our pains and sorrows and longs to be our Bread of Life, the only bread that can fill up that God-sized hole in our lives.  We have to let him do that.  But it’s not so easy for us to let God take over and do what he needs to do in us.  We have to turn off the distractions around us, we have to stop trying to fill the hole with other things that never have any hope of satisfying us, and we have to turn to our Lord in trust that only he can give us strength for the journey.  Jesus alone is the bread that came down from heaven, and only those who eat this bread will live forever, forever satisfied, forever strengthened.  It is only this bread that will give us strength for the arduous journeys of our lives.

Because this Food is so important to us, because it is such a great sign of God’s presence in our lives, we should be all the more encouraged to receive the Eucharist frequently and faithfully.  Certainly nothing other than sickness or death should deter us from gathering on Sunday to celebrate with the community and receive our Lord in Holy Communion.  We should all think long and hard before we decide not to bring our families to Sunday Mass.  Sometimes soccer, football, softball and other sports or activities become more important than weekly worship, as if Mass were just one option among many activities from which we may choose.  Or maybe we decide to work at the office or around the house instead of coming to Church on Sunday, a clear violation of the third commandment.  I realize that I may well be preaching to those who already know this, and I realize that it’s hard, especially for families, to get to Church at times, but this is way too important for any of us to miss.  It is Jesus, the Bread of Life, who will lead us to heaven – the goal of all our lives and our most important journey, – and absolutely nothing and no one else will do that.

It all comes down to what we believe.  If we believe that Jesus is the Bread of Life, then why on earth would we ever want to miss worship?  If he is the only way to heaven, why would we think to separate ourselves from him?  Our Church teaches us that this is not just a wafer of bread and a sip of wine that we are receiving; we believe that it is the very real presence of our Lord, his Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, under the mere appearance of bread and wine.  Because this is our Lord we are receiving, we should never allow anything to take its place.  Because this is our Lord we are receiving, we must return to this Eucharist every week, every day if we are able, acknowledging the great and holy gift that He is to us.

We will come forward in a few minutes to receive this great gift around the Table of the Lord.  As we continue our prayer today, let us remember the advice God gives to Elijah: “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!”

The Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Bread of Life Discourse II – What’s Your Hunger?

Today’s readings

My niece Molly used to say that she wanted to open a restaurant when she grows up. She even had a name all picked out for it: “Hungry.”  That makes a lot of sense when you think about it.  Where are you going to go when you’re hungry?  Well, to Hungry, of course!  I always think about that when these readings come around because today’s Liturgy of the Word speaks to those of us who are hungry – which is to say, all of us.

There’s a lot of hunger in the readings today.  First we have the Israelites, fresh from their escape from slavery in Egypt, finding that they are hungry as they wander through the desert.  I think we can understand their hunger.  But what is hard to understand is the content of their grumbling about it.  They say that they would rather be back in Egypt, eating bread and the meat of the “fleshpots.”  Why on earth did God have to drag them out into the desert only to kill them by hunger and let them die there?  They would rather be in slavery in Egypt than be in the situation in which they find themselves.

Please understand how serious this grumbling is: it is a complete rejection of God, God who has done everything miraculous to save them from abject slavery.  And that slavery was not some kind of minor inconvenience: the people were told to take care of the most strenuous of all labor, building the cities and even making the bricks for them themselves.  If they slacked off at all, or didn’t meet their captors’ unreasonable quotas, they were severely beaten.  They were subject to racism at its nastiest form, and their baby boys were put to death to keep them from rising up.  And yet, the people say they’d rather be in Egypt so they could have a little food in their stomachs.

Not so different is the clamoring of the people in today’s Gospel reading.  Today we pick back up our reflection on the “Bread of Life Discourse,” the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.  Because Mark’s Gospel, which we are hearing from this liturgical year, is a little shorter than the others, we get five wonderful weeks to take a little journey into John’s Eucharistic theology during these summer days.  We began last week, with the famous story of Jesus feeding the multitudes.  Today’s story picks up where last week’s left off: the people were so impressed by Jesus feeding so many with so little that they pursue him across the sea to Capernaum.

Why do they follow him?  Well, they want more food, of course.  But the real feeding he intends is not just barley loaves, but instead something a little more enduring.  So Jesus tells them that the best way they can do God’s will is to believe in him – the one God sent.  So they have the audacity to ask him what kind of sign he can do so that they can believe in him.  Can you believe that?  He just finished feeding thousands of people with five loaves and two fish, leaving twelve baskets of leftovers to distribute to the whole world, proving that he was enough, and more than enough, to feed their hungers, and they stillwant to see a sign?  Instead, Jesus gives them a spiritual sign, a challenge really.  He tells them to believe in him because “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

Jesus wants to get to the root cause of their hunger … and ours too, by the way.  So I think the starting point is that we have to be clear about what it is we hunger for.  And that question is very pressing on all of us today.  Every one of us comes here hungering for something.  Our hungers may be very physical: some here may be unemployed or underemployed, or perhaps our hunger is for physical healing of some kind.  But perhaps our hungers are a bit deeper too: a relationship that is going badly, or a sense that we aren’t doing what we should be or want to be doing with our lives.  Our hunger very well may be very spiritual as well: perhaps our relationship with God is not very developed or our prayer life has become stale.  [Very much so for Antoinette, our new catechumen, God has stirred up the hunger in her heart to know him and come to him and to join with us in the Church as we worship him together.]  Whatever the hunger is, we need to be honest and name it right now, in the stillness of our hearts.

Naming that hunger, we then have to do what Jesus encouraged the crowds to do: believe.  Believe that God can feed our deepest hungers, heal our deepest wounds, bind up our brokenness and calm our restless hearts.  Believe that Jesus is, in fact, the Bread of Life, the bread that will never go stale or perish, the bread that will never run out, or disappear like manna in the heat of the day.  Jesus is the Bread that can feed more than our stomachs but also our hearts and souls.  The Psalmist sings, “The Lord gave them bread from heaven.”  And we know that bread is the most wonderful food of all, because it is the Body of Christ. Amen!

The Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Bread of Life Discourse I – Jesus is Enough and More than Enough

Today’s readings

Bishop Kaffer, of happy memory, used to say that every celebration of the Eucharist was a greater creative act than the creation of the universe.  Now I think greater theological minds than mine would likely debate that, but what Bishop Kaffer gets at is worth considering.  The Eucharist is an incredible miracle, and we are privileged to be part of it every time we gather to celebrate Mass.  Beginning this Sunday, for five weeks, we will take a bit of a detour from reading Mark’s Gospel as we do during this Church year.  We will instead read from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, which is commonly known as the “Bread of Life Discourse.”

We begin that study with consideration of the feeding of the multitudes, a story that has the unique distinction of being in all four of the Gospels.  But, because this is John’s account of the institution of the Eucharist, he covers it a bit differently.  For John it is clearly Jesus who is in charge here.  First of all, it is Jesus who notices that the crowds are hungry; they have expressed no such need, and it wasn’t the apostles bringing it to his attention so they could dismiss the crowds.  Jesus doesn’t need anyone to tell him what the people need or how to minister to them.

Second, like a good salesman, he doesn’t ask any questions to which he doesn’t already know the answer.  When he asks Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” he already knows the answer.  But certainly it stumps Philip, who, not recognizing it as a rhetorical question, notes that not even 200 days wages would provide food for each of these people to have a little.  The key here, though, is that Jesus asked the question knowing full well what he was going to do.

And third, when the loaves and fishes had been gathered and blessed, it is Jesus, not the Twelve, who distribute the food to the people.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke’s version of this story, Jesus gives the food to the Apostles to give to the people.  But in John’s account, Jesus takes the food, gives thanks, and gives it to the people himself.  The word “thanks” here, in Greek, is eucharisteo, which makes obvious the fact that this is Jesus, fully in charge, giving the Eucharist to the people and to us.

At the heart of John’s story of the feeding of the multitudes is the important teaching that Jesus is enough.  Here the boy brought two fish and five loaves of bread, and they were barley loaves, the bread of the poor.  It was probably his lunch for the day, and certainly was not meant to feed so many people.  And there were a lot of people.  The story says there were five thousand men there.  We can assume there were also women and children; after all it was a little boy who sacrificed his lunch for the crowd.  So the actual number of people fed was probably much larger than five thousand.  But look again at how many pieces of food there were: five loaves, two fish, together that equals seven, which is a very Biblical number, usually symbolizing completeness.  Jesus takes the little lunch, and in his hands it is complete: it is enough, and more than enough, to feed the hungry crowd.

And please note that not everyone who needed to be fed was at the picnic.  The disciples gathered up twelve baskets of leftovers, which is another Biblical number that calls to mind the Twelve apostles, and the twelve tribes of Israel, which means the whole world.  All these leftovers are meant to feed others, —the whole world — including you and me.  And that can happen because Jesus is enough, and more than enough, to fill our hungry stomachs, and hearts, and souls.  This little picnic is the Eucharistic banquet par excellence, the first giving of the sacrament that is the source and summit of our lives as Christians.

Now I want to make a note about an explanation of this miracle that you may sometimes hear.  The explanation goes that when Jesus started passing around the loaves and fish, other people noticed what he did and they too decided to share their lunches with the crowd.  So someone took out a sandwich and shared it, another shared some of their fish, or some bread, or whatever it was they had.  And so on and so on until lo and behold, everyone has had enough and there are leftovers.  This is often known as the “miracle of sharing” and it’s very heartwarming to be sure.

But that explanation is wrong, dead wrong.  Don’t let anyone insist to you that it’s right.  Because here’s the rule of thumb: whenever an explanation makes the Gospel story more about us than it is about Jesus, it’s always wrong.  Always.  Without exception.  The Gospel is the Good News that Jesus came to bring, and the story is always about him.  The miracle here is not that so many people were touched to their heart and decided to share.  The miracle is that a boy sacrificed his five loaves and two fish, and in Jesus’ hands they become enough, and more than enough, to fill the stomachs of every person on that grassy hillside, and twelve baskets besides.  Period.

What is important here is that we need to know that this kind of thing goes on all the time, even in our own day.  Jesus always notices the needs and hungers of his people.  Perhaps you have seen a need in the community, maybe a family who is in need, or an issue that needs to be addressed.  You noticed that because the Jesus is working in you.  It’s very easy to go through life noticing nothing and no one, but that doesn’t happen in disciples.  Disciples are the ears and eyes of Jesus, and he notices the needs of his people through us every day.  Now, having noticed a need, we may very well feel inadequate to fill it.  What good is our few hours of time or few dollars going to do for such a huge need?  How can our imperfect talents make up for such a need?  Here we have to trust that Jesus will do with our imperfect offerings as he did with the five loaves and two fish.  Jesus makes up for our lack, and we can take comfort in that.  If we are faithful to respond to the need with what we have, we can be sure that Jesus will use what we have, and it will be enough, and more than enough, to satisfy the need.

We can do that because Jesus feeds us all the time.  Every time we come to the Table of the Lord, we are given a little bit of bread and a sip of wine that has become the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ our Savior.  At every Eucharist, we are fed more wonderfully and superabundantly than even the crowd in today’s Gospel.  We are fed with food that will never pass away or perish; we are fed with the Bread of Eternal life.  Since we disciples have that gift at our disposal, we would do well to bring ourselves to it as often as we can, and as well-disposed for it as we can.  We must make it our constant care to attend Mass all the time, and to use the Sacrament of Penance to prepare ourselves to receive the grace of the Eucharist.  Disciples who regularly and faithfully feed themselves with the Bread of Life will find it natural to offer their meager gifts to feed great hungers in our world, hungers that our God longs to fill.

And so we gratefully come to the Eucharist today, to take part in a meal even more wonderful than the feeding of the multitudes, and partake of bread far more nourishing than barley loaves.  We come to the Eucharist today to have all of our hungers fed, and to take baskets of leftovers out of this holy place to feed those who hunger around us this week.  We pray for the grace to notice the needs of others and the grace to offer what we have to serve the poor, trusting in God to make up for what we lack.  We pray the words of the psalmist with trust and gratitude: “The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.”

The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Today’s readings

In the summer of my first year of seminary, the diocese sent me to Mexico to learn Spanish.  This time next week, I’ll be wishing that worked a lot better than it did!  I have forgotten, unfortunately, a lot of what I learned, but I’ll never forget the first day.  The first day was a Sunday, and we flew into Mexico City, got picked up by the school, and then introduced to the families we would be living with.  The people I was going to live with assumed correctly that I wouldn’t have been to Mass yet, so on the way home we went to Mass at the cathedral in Cuernavaca.  So I’m attending Mass with only my high school Spanish, and the little bit of liturgical Spanish I picked up from when we used Spanish in Mass at seminary.  A lot of what I heard, I didn’t understand, but there was one thing I couldn’t miss, and that was the Eucharist.

In our second reading today, Saint Paul says, “Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”  No matter where we live or what language we speak, we are one body in Christ, who gives himself completely to us … all of us.  We try to symbolize that in lots of ways in the liturgy: saying the same prayers, singing the same songs, even holding hands at the Lord’s Prayer.  All of that is nice, but the most important way that we show our unity is when we come to the altar and receive the Most Holy Body and Blood of our Lord, who gave himself so that we may be one in him, and may have the strength to follow him to heaven one day.

One of the greatest joys for me the last six and a half years here at Notre Dame has been celebrating that with you.  Whether it was daily Mass or Sunday Mass, or a First Communion, a wedding or a funeral, or even Christmas or Easter Mass, all of that has been a great privilege to celebrate with you.

Now over these last years here at Notre Dame, I’ve learned a lot.  And I’ve even learned from Father Venard, and so I want to include a joke at this point in my homily!  The new pastor arrived at his parish, and as he was unpacking and putting things into the desk in his office, he found a note attached to three envelopes in a little bundle.  The envelopes were numbered one to three.  They were from the priest he was replacing and the note said that if ever things got bad and there was a little storm, he should open an envelope, beginning with the first.  He chuckled a bit, and set them aside, and things went so well that he almost forgot about them.  Until there was a controversy.  Things were getting ugly, and he remembered the envelopes and decided to open the first.  It said, very simply, “Blame me, your predecessor.”  So he did.  He blamed the priest before him, and everyone accepted that, and they moved on.  But eventually there was another controversy, and so he decided to open the second envelope.  It said, “Blame the pastoral council.”  So that’s what he did.  He blamed the pastoral council and things blew over and they moved on.  But, after a little while, there was a third controversy, so in desperation, he opened the last of the envelopes.  This note was a little longer than the others, but the first line really got his attention: “Prepare three envelopes.”

I won’t be leaving three envelopes for Father David, but I do want to leave you with three things.  The first is thanks.  I don’t know how I can ever express my gratitude enough.  So many of you have been with me in good times and bad, and have supported me and taught me and worked with me and made me a better priest and a better man in Christ.  I have worked with some of the finest people I’ve ever known on our parish staff, on our parish council, finance council, school board, buildings and grounds and most recently on the capital campaign.  I have enjoyed rolling up my sleeves with you on service day, singing with you at the Christmas Concert, and serving with the many fine people who help me make the Liturgy happen here each week.  You have brought me soup when I was sick, and cookies when I needed joy, and asked about my family and made them feel part of the family here.  Many wise priests have told me that you never forget the first parish where you were a pastor, and I am certain they are right.  I will never forget you, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

The second thing I want to leave you with is an apology.  I know there are days that I haven’t been at my finest for many reasons.  So if you’ve encountered me when I’ve been preoccupied or grumpy or frustrated, if ever I have been less than Christ to you, please know that I am so sorry.

And finally I want to leave you with a gift.  This one is one that maybe you’ve picked up along the way, because I talk about it a lot.  The children know it by heart.  And that gift is that God loves you more than anything.  All of you together, and each of you individually, are loved so much by God that he sent his Son into the world to bring us all home to heaven one day.  He loves us so much that he could not bear to live without us, so he sent his Son to die in our place, and rise up over death so that we could have life.  If that’s the only thing you remember about God, let it be that: that God loves you.  And if the only thing you remember about me is that I told you that, it will be more than enough.

God loves you, and I love you too.  I won’t forget you, you’ll always be in my prayers, and I hope I’ll be in yours.  We will always be one body in Christ.  And because of that, I don’t say goodbye; I just say I love you.  And I look forward to that great day when, as Saint Benedict wrote, we all go together to everlasting life.

Holy Thursday: Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel gives us a very interesting start to the Sacred Paschal Triduum.  This three-day-long-feast begins with a meal, which makes sense.  But it’s a meal interrupted by a very important teaching.  I think it’s fair to say that Jesus never did anything without also trying to teach something important in the process.  When he healed on the Sabbath, he was teaching that the Sabbath was not something to be observed for its own sake, but was for the glory of God and the recharging of people.  When he fed the thousands, he was teaching that there was nothing so impossible that God could not make it happen.  Even when he chose his disciples, he was teaching that people’s worth was defined by God and not by the things they have accomplished on their own.

So when he interrupts this Passover supper to wash the disciples’ feet, he was trying to teach them something, and to put the meal and the teaching together in context.  Washing the feet of guests was a common practice in Jesus’ time.  In those days, people often had to travel quite a distance to accept an invitation to a feast or celebration.  And they would travel that distance, not by car or train or even by beast of burden, but most often on foot.  The travelers’ feet would then become not only dirty from the dusty roads, but also hot and tired from the long journey.  It was a gesture of hospitality to wash the guests’ feet, but it was a gesture that was not usually supplied by the host of the gathering, but instead by someone much lower in stature, like a servant or slave.  But at the Last Supper, it is Jesus himself who wraps a towel around his waist, picks up the bowl and pitcher, and washes the feet of his friends.  So we are about to see that he wasn’t just washing their feet to get a job done or even to provide hospitality; he was dong this to give them an example of what Scripture scholars call kenosis.

I had a Scripture teacher who always used to talk about kenosis.  During my seminary days, we went through some pretty rough times with the Church.  Just two weeks after we started, we had the tragedy of 9/11.  Along with the rest of the country, we all felt like the bottom had dropped out and nothing was really certain any more.  Then, the following spring, the sexual abuse scandal broke wide open, and so many of us wondered what we were getting ourselves into.  Many of us had personal tragedies as well, me included when both of my parents were diagnosed with cancer just one month apart from each other.  We ended our time in seminary with the tragic death of two of our brother seminarians in a car crash on the school grounds.  Life is like that, we all have things that we go through and we wonder why we go on, why we even try to live as disciples.  And I remember whenever we would express that, one of my Scripture teachers would always look at us and say, “It’s all about kenosis.”

At first when we heard that we looked at him like most of you are looking at me right now.  But we came to know what kenosis meant.  It is a New Testament Greek word that basically means “self-emptying.”  It comes from the root word kenos which is used to describe places or vessels that are empty, or to describe people who are empty handed or arrive without a gift.  Kenosis in the New Testament sense is used to describe Jesus Christ, who as St. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”  Christ emptied himself of the honor that was rightfully his as our God and took our own human form.  That’s kenosis.

And he drove the point home as he finished this great act of service.  He says, “Do you realize what I have done for you?  You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.  If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.  I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”  If even our Lord who had the right to demand anything from us, to whom he gave everything, if even he would tie a towel around his waist and wash people’s feet, then we disciples, we followers of the Lord, we who would look for our reward with him, we must also be willing to do whatever it takes to bring people to salvation.  We’re not supposed to just watch the Mass be performed for us, we’re supposed to live the Mass every day of our lives in any place the Lord puts us, knowing that he walked that way before us, and that our reward will be great.  We, brothers and sisters, are called to kenosis in our own lives.

But here’s the kicker: another aspect of our own call to kenosis is that sometimes we have to empty out the part of us that desperately wants to do everything for ourselves, and to let someone else minister to us in our need.  I told you about my parents both being sick when I was in seminary.  That was such a hard time for me, mostly because I was still really convinced that I could get through anything life threw at me on my own.  But I had to learn that sometimes I need to let my friends pick me up and carry me to Jesus when I couldn’t get there on my own.  I’m bad at that.  I’m like Peter – no one’s going to wash my feet.  But I learned that I have to get over that if I’m ever going to be empty enough for Christ to fill me up.  It’s not about me – and it can’t be about any of us, we who would take up our crosses to follow our Lord.

There’s another part of this Gospel that really strikes me.  You heard me tell you about the practice of washing the feet of guests in Jesus’ day.  So when do you think their feet would be washed?  Immediately upon arriving, of course: their feet were dusty and tired from the journey.  But that’s not what happens here, is it?  The Gospel reading says that during the supper, Jesus rose, changed his clothes, and washed their feet.  That’s a detail that would really stick out to those hearing the story in that day, because they understood the practice.  Now Jesus didn’t wash their feet at that time because he forgot to do it when they arrived, or because he had just now noticed how filthy their feet were.  He had a very specific reason for washing their feet during the meal.  Because now that great act of kenosis would be forever intimately tied to the celebration of the Eucharist.  Because of the very precise timing of this act of service, we who receive the Eucharist now know that we are called to follow Jesus’ example and to pour ourselves out in service to our brothers and sisters.  Every time we are fed by our Lord, we must always remember that we are called by our Lord to empty ourselves and become the presence of Christ for those who share life with us.

On this great night, as we begin the great three-day feast of our Savior’s triumph over sin and death, we come together to share a meal – the same meal he shared with his friends on that night so long ago.  And because we Catholics don’t simply remember this night with mere fond recollections of an ancient historical event, but instead by entering into the experience in all its fullness yet again, then we have to hear the same commandment Jesus gave his disciples: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”  As we gather and come forward to do this in remembrance of Christ, may we also pour ourselves out each day for our brothers and sisters, lovingly washing their feet just as ours have been washed by our Saving Lord.

Thanksgiving Day: People of Eucharist

Today’s readings

Just yesterday, MaryAnn Fenton shared with me a letter she received from one of our Food Pantry clients. We had gone beyond food and helped her pay her rent this month because she was in a particularly bad spot. Just hearing her story brought tears to my eyes and it wasn’t a real hard decision to help her out. Well, very often when we do that, we don’t hear much back, maybe just a thank-you when they pick up the check. But this time, the woman decided to write us a letter, in which every word was filled with gratitude and love. What we had done for her didn’t seem like much, but to her it was everything; it had lifted a great burden of worry that she was carrying.

That act of gratitude provides a rich framework for what I want to talk about today, and it’s an interesting illustration of today’s Gospel reading. That reading is scandalous, because it seems that nine believers – people who should know how to be grateful to God – failed to express their gratitude over a miracle that literally gave them back the life that leprosy took away from them. It’s almost unthinkable. Maybe we can cut them a little slack, because when you look closely at the story, Jesus really didn’t say or do anything indicative of healing – all he did was say “Go show yourselves to the priests.” Now, it was the priests’ job to take care of ritual purity, but I’m guessing they had seen priests about their illness in the past and obviously had not been healed. So I can see how they would have been confused, frustrated, and maybe even a little angry at Jesus’ response. But they absolutely could not have been confused about the fact that they had been healed. And yet the only one who thought to give thanks and praise to God was the other guy, a Samaritan – a foreigner and a religious outcast who wasn’t expected to know the religious etiquette that one should follow.

Maybe the most deeply scandalous part of this whole reading is not just that nine lepers forgot to thank Jesus. I think the most scandalous part of this Gospel is that it really can be a kind of mirror of our own society, and perhaps even our own lives. Because these days gratitude is not a common occurrence; more often our society gets caught up in entitlement – we deserve blessings, we have a right to grace and mercy. Just as we think we have a right to everything in the whole world, we lay claim to God’s grace in ways that are deeply scandalous and even more than a little heretical.

Just like those ten lepers had no right to lay claim to Jesus’ healing powers, so we too have no right to lay claim to his grace and mercy. Those things do not belong to us, and even more than that we are quite unable to earn them, even if we had a desire to earn them in the first place. But here’s the really great thing that shatters the scandal: even though the lepers had no right to be healed, Jesus healed them anyway. Even though we have no right to God’s grace and forgiveness for our many sins, he gives those things to us anyway, without a thought of doing otherwise. As the saying goes, God is good, all the time.

And so the message today is that we have to decidedly leave behind our attitudes of entitlement and embrace an attitude of gratitude. And honestly, I think that can make us happier people. Grateful people live differently. Grateful people look for the blessing in every moment, they hunt for the grace constantly at work in their lives. When you’re grateful, it’s amazing how much more you seem to be blessed. Only it’s not necessarily that you’re blessed more; instead it’s that you’re more aware of the blessing. Thankful people are happier with their lives, because they’re simply more aware of what God is doing, how God is leading them, and they feel the touch of God’s hand leading them through life. Being grateful is a choice, but it’s a choice worth making, it’s a choice that makes our lives richer and more beautiful every day.

As Catholics, we are a people who, at least liturgically, constantly choose to be grateful. Our Eucharist – which, as we know, is the Greek word for thanksgiving – is the Thanksgiving feast beyond all of our imagining. Every time we gather to celebrate Mass, we remember that God in his infinite mercy sent his only Son to be our Savior. He came into our world and walked among us, filling the earth with his most merciful presence. He journeyed among us, a man like us in all things but sin. His great love led him to bear the cross for our sake, dying the death we so richly deserved for our many sins. And then he did the greatest thing possible: he burst out of the grave, breaking the chains of death, and rose to new life. Because of this grace, we have the possibility of everlasting life with God, the life we were created for in the first place.

Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember this awesome mystery. Not only that, our Eucharist brings us to the hour of that grace, giving us once again a share in its blessing. As a Eucharistic people, we Catholics are a people of gratitude. That’s what defines us.

So how would a people defined by gratitude celebrate this Thanksgiving day? Certainly we have made the best possible start: gathering for the Eucharist to give thanks for the presence of God and the grace he pours out on us. Then we take that grace to our families’ own Thanksgiving feasts and beyond. As we gather around the table today, maybe we can stop to reflect on God’s magnificent presence in our lives – in good times and in bad. And then use that gratitude to make the world an awesome place – or at least your corner of it!

So we’re not like those nine lepers that somehow missed the grace and blessing that was happening right before their eyes. We’re more like the food pantry client who realized, though she had no claim on our generosity, received it with joy and humility and gratitude. On this day, we gather because we choose to be grateful. On this day, before all the turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie, we stand up and bear witness that our God is good all the time, that there is grace and blessing all around us, and we can see it if we choose to do so. We grateful ones come into this holy place to show a watching world that we are who we say we are – a people of Eucharist – of thanksgiving not just on this day, but every day. And we proclaim to a cynical world that gratitude is the antidote for entitlement, and it’s an attitude that can make the world a more blessed place. Like the pilgrims on that first Thanksgiving, our gratitude can become the source of our survival through the hard times and the source of our joy in the good times. May we never cease offer our gratitude to God, singing to him our songs of thanks and praise.

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?

Holy Thursday: The Scandal of the Cross

Today’s readings

I love what Jesus says to Peter after Peter initially refuses to have his feet washed. “What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will understand later.” I kind of feel like that’s what could be said about the entirety of our faith. What we are taught very rarely makes sense at the first presentation, but later, when we have eyes opened up by the Resurrection, well, then things start to fall into place.

So I want to start my reflection on these three holy days, this Sacred Paschal Triduum, with the incredibly scandalous idea that is the Holy Cross. The Church would have us do so, too, for She provides just one entrance antiphon for these three days, and that comes at the beginning of today’s Mass, and it says:

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

This antiphon is adapted from Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians (6:14) in which he spends most of the letter chastising the community – even to the point of calling them “stupid” (3:1) – for taking their eyes off Jesus and the Gospel and everything that Saint Paul has taught them, and instead looking back to the Jewish law and all its artificial marks of righteousness. But we dare not condemn them so quickly. Because, quite frankly, we have to understand their faltering faith in light of our own.

For us, now removed a couple of thousand years past the Crucifixion of our Lord, the Cross seems pretty standard – it almost doesn’t even phase us any more. We see it in church, we probably have one or more in our homes, and we might even wear one around our neck pretty often. And so, I think, the Cross may have lost some of its very important impact: an impact Jesus’ disciples certainly experienced as they fled in fear. It’s an impact Saint Paul’s Church in Galatia would have experienced too, and perhaps explained their trying to find justification in other ways.

Because the cross was terrifying. And not only that, the cross was scandalous. It was saved for the dregs of society, for the worst of the worst. For those who were a problem for society. It was saved for the likes of Barabbas, for heaven’s sake! And the unrepentant thief. And yet, that is where our Lord went at the end of his life on earth. Nobody in Jesus’ day would have been inspired by this awful display. Saint Paul acknowledges as much in his first letter to the Corinthians when he says, “But we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1:23).

But if people in that day missed the importance of Jesus embracing and dying on the cross, then they missed his entire message too. Because it was every bit as scandalous that Jesus ate with sinners and touched lepers. Just as scandalous as the cross was his getting up at supper and taking off his outer garments, tying a towel around his waist, and washing the feet of the disciples. That was the job of a servant, but then he did come to serve not to be served. That was the job of a slave, but then he did come to set us free from our ancient sinfulness.

As scandalous as the Cross was for the early Church, it is also deeply problematic for the Church today. Because we live in a society that values freedom, convenience, and bright shiny happiness – none of which, I dare say, you’ll find on the Cross. In our society, we might boast that there is a pill for almost every ailment, even if they come with a horrifying list of side-effects. In our society, we have convenience down to a science: we eat fast food, we bank and shop online and delight in free overnight shipping, we lose our minds in the line at the DMV. In our society, we do our best to spin every situation into some kind of false happiness, with painted smiles and happy music and all kinds of glitzy advertising.

We’re more than happy to have a Resurrection, thank you, but the Cross … well that’s just not something we’re open to embracing. And the problem with that is that living the Gospel requires that we take up our own crosses and follow our Lord (Matthew 16:24). So our aversion to the Cross, both in the ancient Church and now, is a real obstacle to our life of faith, a real obstacle to our eternity.

The cause of the obstacle, I would assert – at least in my own spiritual life – is that on the Cross, we see our own sins. The real scandalous part of the Cross for us is that our Savior had to go there to free us from our sins. What makes us turn our heads away and avert our gaze is that we can’t bear to see that even our smallest sins have such horrible, scandalous consequences. The real scandal of the Cross is that the Word made flesh had to give up his own life in such a terrible death in order that I might live.

What on earth are we supposed to do with that? How do we live with the fact that God’s only begotten Son died for us? Well, he tells us in today’s Gospel. “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” And he’s not just talking about washing feet, dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ. Whatever he’s done for us, we’re supposed to do for others. If he’s forgiven us much, then we should never stop forgiving. If he has served us, then we have to serve others. If he has laid down our life for us, then we better do the same for the people in our lives. Anything less is an offense against the Holy Cross.

As we gather on this Holy Thursday night, we know that the washing of the feet is a mere foreshadowing of the Cross. Jesus came to give himself completely so that we might have life. He washes feet, cleansing the disciples of their sins and making them fit for service. He offers his Body and Blood to be the food that sustains us on our journey. And he offers us our own crosses that we might have a share in his own, leading us onward to eternal life.

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.