The Third Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

How often have you said something that began with “I’ll be happy when…”?  You know, “I’ll be happy when I’m done paying for the kids’ college tuition;” “I’ll be happy when I get that promotion;” “I’ll be happy when I lose that last ten pounds;” “I’ll be happy when I can afford that new car…”  We’ve all done it, we’ve all set our hopes for happiness on some future event or accomplishment.  But then it gets there, or it doesn’t, and we’re not as happy as we’d like to be, so we look for happiness in something else.  Today’s Liturgy of the Word tells us that we’re doing it wrong.  We have to learn that we’re supposed to be happy in the journey.

Listen to what the Psalmist says today: “You will show me the path to life, abounding joy in your presence, the delights at your right hand forever.”  Abounding joy happens along the path to life, at God’s right hand, who accompanies us on the journey.  I’ve been thinking a lot about journeys lately.  Obviously, my journey is taking me a bit southwest of here in June, and so that is always in the back of my consciousness, with its mix of sadness and fear and excitement and expectation – that’s one journey.  I’ve also been on WeightWatchers since January, and they are always talking about the journey to being healthy, and all of the steps it takes to get there.  So journeying has been really up front and foremost in my mind these days.

Well, today’s Gospel finds two of Jesus’ disciples on a journey Jerusalem, where a lot of crazy stuff just went down, to Emmaus.  Along the way, they are discussing what had been going on, and we can just imagine how their minds had to be reeling!  For those of us who know the story, it’s pretty incredible.  But for them it had to have been mind blowing.  They were never expecting anything like this.  But here they were, walking along, discussing how Jesus’ death and resurrection had changed everything in just a few short days.

And into that experience, as they journeyed along the road, Jesus appears.  They don’t get that it’s Jesus, though, probably because his body looked different, more radiant, after the resurrection.  So along the way, he explains how all the scriptures foretold all that had happened to their friend, who happened to be talking to them right then.  But they still don’t get it.  So after they stop for the evening and invite him to dinner, they finally recognize him in the breaking of the bread.  All of this, I think, is very interesting to us who are on the journey to be with the Lord and delight at his right hand forever.

Because we’re all on a journey, brothers and sisters.  We are never at home in this world, as nice as it is.  We’re supposed to be in heaven, where there will be happiness forever.  But we can still seek reasonable happiness here on earth, and I believe we will find it if we just rejoice a little in the journey.  But to really enjoy the journey, we have to enter into it with our whole hearts and souls.  We can’t be wandering off the path and looking for happiness in all those things I mentioned at the beginning of my homily.  We have to focus on the journey from here to heaven if we ever really want to be happy in this life.

So how do we do that?  Well, I think our Gospel story gives us some clues.  The first thing is to keep moving on the journey.  If God has called you to do something, go somewhere, try something, change something, then do that thing!  When we stop going because we think we’re not good enough, or that someone else would be more worthy, or whatever excuse we have, then we’re selling God short.  Because the truth is we are not good enough, all by ourselves.  We’re not the most worthy.  But, and this is very important to know, brothers and sisters, God can call whoever he wants to do whatever he wants done.  It’s not about you or me or who’s doing it.  God is in charge, always and forever, and he will always give you what you need to do what he’s called you to do.  So keep going.

The second clue is we don’t go it alone.  There were two disciples going to Emmaus, and into their journey, our Lord asserted himself.  He did promise that elsewhere in the Gospel: “Where two or three are gathered, there am I among you.”  Other people on the journey give us accountability.  They help to keep us on the right path.  And frankly, it’s more pleasant to journey with others.

The third clue is that we have to open ourselves up to the scriptures.  The scriptures aren’t just stories written for people thousands of years ago.  They are inspired by the Holy Spirit and intended as much for us as they were for our ancestors in faith.  You will be surprised how much the scriptures speak to you when you open them up on a regular basis.  Just a few verses a day is a great way to start, and it can really enliven your prayer.  The scriptures enlivened that journey with the disciples and made their hearts burn within them.  That can happen for us too, and it should.

The final clue comes in the breaking of the bread.  That one seems pretty obvious, but it was a real eye opener for those two disciples.  In the breaking of the bread, they saw the Lord.  We can too, every time we receive the Holy Eucharist.  Just as those disciples came to recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread, so it can be for us.  Filled with the grace of Holy Communion, maybe we can recognize our Lord with fresh eyes and truly see him in our brothers and sisters.  Maybe we will see our Lord in the faces of the needy when we come to serve them.  Maybe you will see him in the faces of your children as you teach them and correct them and love them into the kingdom of God.  Maybe you will see him in the face of a coworker or friend who is going through a difficult time.  As we love those people the Lord puts in our paths, maybe we can see our Lord among us in a new way.

You’ve probably heard, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”  For us Catholics that’s half right.  Because yes, it is about the destination.  We certainly want to get to the ultimate happiness of heaven.  But it needs to be about the journey too.  Because it’s on the journey that we grow in our faith, and see our Lord walking with us.  The journey might be long and difficult, but it’s always blessed by our Lord if we choose to look for our happiness along the way.

The Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

We have a pretty late Lent this year.  Ash Wednesday is not until March 1st.  What is really nice about that is that it gives us a little more ordinary time in the winter, which we often don’t get.  Sometimes we rush from Christmas to Ash Wednesday and barely get to breathe.  So in this little Ordinary Time break, we get some nice things in the Scriptures, specifically the study of what the Christian life should be.  I think today’s Scriptures give us a look at the virtue of humility.

Humility is the virtue that reminds us that God is God and we are not.  That might seem pretty obvious, but I think if we’re honest, we’d all have to admit that we have trouble with humility from time to time.  The deadly sin that is in opposition to humility is pride, and pride is perhaps the most common sin, and really the most serious sin.  We might think of all kinds of other sins that seem worse, but pride completely destroys our relationship with God because it convinces us that we don’t need God.  That was the sin of the Israelites building the golden calf in the desert, it was the sin of the Pharisees arguing with Jesus, it was even the sin of Lucifer in the first place, and it is the sin of all of us, at some level, at some times in our lives.

Pride is pretty easy to recognize when it’s blatant: it is the person boasting of their abilities or their possessions or their accomplishments or status, claiming all the glory for themselves, putting others down in the process, and never even mentioning God.  So we might look at that and say, well, Father Pat, I’m not prideful.  But hold on just a second.  That’s not the only face of pride.  Another face of pride realizes that we are in a sorry state, but doesn’t want to bother God with our problems so we try to figure them out ourselves.  It never works, and so we continue to feel miserable, but we also offend God in the process.  A similar face of pride looks to accomplish something important, maybe even something holy.  But we go about it without immersing it in prayer and forge ahead with our own plans.  Again, we often fail at those times, and we certainly offend God.

The only antidote to pride is the virtue of humility.  It is the prayer that admits that God is God and we are not.  It is the way of living that accepts the difficulties and challenges of life as an opportunity to let God work in us.  It is the state of being that admits that everything we are and everything we have is a gift from God, and spurs us to profound and reverential gratitude for the outpouring of grace that gets us through every day and brings us to deeper friendship with God.

So today we hear the very familiar Beatitudes.  I know that when I was learning about the Beatitudes as a child, they were held up as some kind of Christian answer to the Ten Commandments.  I don’t think that’s particularly valid.  One might say, however, that the Ten Commandments are a basic rule of life and the Beatitudes take us still deeper.

I also remember thinking, when I was learning about the Beatitudes, that these seemed like kind of a weak way to live life. I mean, who can live up to all these things anyway?  And who would want to?  Do you know anyone who would actively seek to be poor, meek or mourning?  And who wants to be a peacemaker?  Those people have more than their share of grief.

So I think when we hear the Beatitudes today, we need to hear them a little differently.  We need to hear them as consolation and encouragement on the journey.  Because at some point or another, we will all be called upon to be poor, meek and mourning.  That’s just life.  And the disciple has to be a peacemaker and seek righteousness.  We will have grief in this lifetime – Jesus tells us that in another place.  So what Jesus is saying here, is that those of us undergoing these sorts of trials and still seeking to be righteous people through our sufferings are blessed.  And the Greek word that we translate as “blessed” here is makarios, a word that could also be translated as “happy.”  Happy are those who suffer for the Kingdom.

So does anyone really believe that?  I mean, it’s quite a leap of faith to engage our sufferings and still be sane, let alone happy.  The ability to see these Beatitudes as true blessings seems like too much to ask.  And yet, that’s what we disciples are being asked to do.

I think a good part of the reason why this kind of thinking is hard for us, is that it’s completely countercultural.  Our society wants us to be happy, pain-free and without a concern in the world.  That’s the message we get from commercials that sell us the latest in drugs to combat everything from indigestion to arthritis pain – complete with a horrifying list of side-effects.  That’s the message we get from the self-help books out there and the late-night infomercials promising that we can get rich quick, rid our homes of every kind of stain or vermin, or lose all the weight you want in just minutes a day.  That’s the message we get from Oprah and Dr. Phil and their ilk, who encourage us never to be second to anyone and to do everything possible to put ourselves first.  If this is the kind of message we get every time we turn on a television, or surf the internet, who on earth would want to be poor in spirit?  Who would want to be meek?  Who would even think to hunger and thirst for righteousness?

Now this is an important point: Pride is just the way we live, culturally speaking.  We are always right, and if we’re not, we certainly have a right to be wrong.  We can accomplish anything we set out to do, and if we fail, it was someone else’s fault.  We don’t need anyone’s help to live our lives, but when we’re in need, it’s because everyone has abandoned us.  We are culturally conditioned to be deeply prideful people, and it is absolutely ruining our spiritual lives.

Jesus is the One who had the most right of anyone to be prideful.  He is God, for heaven’s sake – I mean, he really could do anything he wanted without anyone’s help.  But he chose to abandon that way of thinking so that we could learn how to live more perfect lives.  He abandoned his pride and in humility took on the worst kind of death and the deepest of humiliation.

So what if we started to think the way Jesus does?  What would happen if we suddenly decided it wasn’t all about us?  What would happen if we decided that the utmost priority in life was not merely taking care of ourselves, but instead taking care of others, trusting that in that way, everyone – including ourselves – would be taken care of?  What would happen if we were not completely consumed with ourselves and so did not miss the opportunity to come to know others and grow closer to our Lord?  That would indeed be a day of great rejoicing and gladness, I can assure you that.

And I’m not saying you shouldn’t take care of yourself.  We all need to do that to some extent, and maybe sometimes we don’t do that as well as we should – I’ll even speak for myself on that one.  But when we consume ourselves with ourselves, nothing good can come from it.  Maybe this is a kind of balance that we could spend these weeks leading up to Lent striving to achieve.

Today’s Liturgy of the Word calls us to a kind of humility that remembers that God is God and we are not.  It is the only real antidote to the destructive, deadly sin of pride that consumes our society and us on a daily basis.  This isn’t some kind of false humility that says we are good for nothing, because God never made anything that was good for nothing.  Instead, it is a humility that reminds us that what is best in us is what God has given us.  As St. Paul says today, “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God.”  If we would remember that everything that we have and everything we are is a gift to us, if we would remember that it is up to us to care for one another, if we would remember that being consumed with ourselves only makes us feel worse than ever, if we would but humble ourselves and let God give us everything that we really need, we would never be in want.  Blessed, happy are we; rejoice and be glad!

Independence Day

Today’s readings: Ezekiel 3:17-21; Psalm 8; Colossians 3:9b-17; Matthew 25:31-46

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

So begins our nation’s Declaration of Independence, a document of inestimable worth, authored by passionate men.  The independence that document brought came at the price of many lives, and so that independence and the rights it brought forth, must always be vigorously defended and steadfastly maintained.

The Liturgy of the Word today shows just exactly how important this is.  Yes, it’s good for people to be free from despotic rule, but there is more to it than that.  So in today’s Gospel, Jesus gathers his disciples and paints for them a picture of what the final judgment will be like.  When we think about judgment day, we often picture something that will happen to us as individuals, and indeed, that is one aspect.  But the really important judgment comes about not as individuals, but as nations.  Indeed, Jesus tells us that the nations will be assembled before him when he comes in glory, and these he will separate like the sheep from the goats.  It’s not an individual picture here at all.

So this makes exercising our rights a matter of great importance.  We can’t be a people who don’t take the time to vote, because the leaders of our nation can either lead us to salvation or to damnation.  We can’t be people who decide how to vote a matter of simply “what’s in it for me,” but instead must give due care to consider the welfare of our nation as a whole, and the influence that we exert on the world community.  We have to be a nation who brings others to Christ and gives witness to the Gospel.  As Ezekiel prophecies in our first reading today, woe to us if we don’t!

It’s a sobering thought, but not one that we should feel is insurmountable.  Since that momentous day of July 4, 1776, we have been a people that has vigorously defended the rights that bring us to peace in this life and salvation in the next.  We have defended life.  But as our society has become more complex, the right to life has been somewhat blurred.  When does life begin?  What lives need to be protected?  The Church, of course, calls for a vigorous defense of life at every stage from conception to natural death.  That means abortion is wrong, embryonic stem-cell research is wrong, euthanasia is wrong.  These convictions make for difficult conversations, but life is and always will be a basic human right.

We have defended the right to liberty, but that right is similarly blurred in today’s society.  Nobody wants anything to infringe on their freedoms.  And nothing should.  But being free people doesn’t mean that we’re free to do whatever we want.  Our freedom cannot, for example, impinge on the freedom of another person.  Our freedom cannot allow us to harm another person.  As we heard in last Sunday’s second reading, Saint Paul tells us that “for freedom, Christ has set us free.”  Our freedom has a purpose, and that purpose is that we can then freely choose Christ, freely choose God, freely choose love.  None of that happens in a coerced way.  Freely choosing God means that we must be willing to freely choose all that that choice entails, without threat of harm from another.

And finally there is the pursuit of happiness.  We Christians believe that happiness will never be perfectly obtained in this life.  We long for the happiness of the kingdom of God, that place we were made for in the first place.  We have the right to pursue reasonable happiness in this life, and we have a right to exercise the means to pursue the most excellent happiness of the world to come.

In the last line of the Declaration, our forefathers pledged themselves to the great task of building a nation based on these inalienable rights: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”  May we always make the same pledge that our nation may always be great.

Monday of the Tenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Sometimes God’s blessings can be challenging.  For example, we might not think that those who are meek and those who mourn are blessed.  And we certainly wouldn’t celebrate the blessings of those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, would we?  It’s even more challenging when we remember that the word “blessed” in Scripture could also be translated as “happy.”  Would we think of those people as happy?  Probably not, but God does.

Paul and Timothy in our first reading write to the people of the Church at Corinth that, when they are afflicted – as they surely were! – it was for the Church’s encouragement and salvation.  Paul knew well that following Christ meant going to the Cross.  He realized that, for him, it probably meant death, but for all of us, it means some kind of mortification, some kind of sacrifice.

So it’s important for us to remember, I think, that while God never promises to make our lives free and easy, he does promise to bless us.  He will bless us with whatever gifts we need to do the work he has called us to do, the work for which he formed us in our mother’s womb.  We may be reasonably happy in this life, but the true happiness must come later.  Our reward, which Jesus promises will be great, will surely be in heaven.

Homily for Independence Day: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Famously begins the Declaration of Independence, signed by representatives of the American colonies on July 4, 1776.  Sometimes, I think, it seems we have strayed pretty far from the ideals found in this wonderful document.  Just that first sentence says a lot about who our forefathers wanted us to be: it acknowledges the Creator God who gives people a dignity and rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  These rights must still be vigorously defended today.

The right to life seems like a no-brainer.  But as our society has become more complex, the right to life has been somewhat blurred.  When does life begin?  What lives need to be protected?  The Church, of course, calls for a vigorous defense of life at every stage from conception to natural death.  That means abortion is wrong, embryonic stem-cell research is wrong, euthanasia is wrong.  These convictions make for difficult conversations, but life is and always will be a basic human right.

The right to liberty is similarly blurred in today’s society.  Nobody wants anything to infringe on their freedoms.  And nothing should.  But being free people doesn’t mean that we’re free to do whatever we want.  Our freedom cannot, for example, impinge on the freedom of another person.  Our freedom cannot allow us to harm another person.  Saint Paul says that “for freedom, Christ has set us free.”  Our freedom has a purpose, and that purpose is that we can then freely choose Christ, freely choose God, freely choose love.  None of that happens in a coerced way.  Freely choosing God means that we must be willing to freely choose all that that choice entails, without threat of harm from another.

And finally there is the pursuit of happiness.  We Christians believe that happiness will never be perfectly obtained in this life.  We long for the happiness of the kingdom of God, that place we were made for in the first place.  We have the right to pursue reasonable happiness in this life, and we have a right to exercise the means to pursue the most excellent happiness of the world to come.

We Catholics teach that with all these rights come responsibilities.  We have a responsibility to protect the rights of others, to keep our nation from harm, to work for lasting peace in the world.  Toward that end, we are mindful and grateful of the work so many have done to secure our rights and freedoms, both those who have gone before us and those still fighting wars today.  In our prayer, we long for the day when war will be no more, and the peace that is the presence of Christ will rule over a world still in need of the perfection of life, liberty and happiness.

In the last line of the Declaration, our forefathers pledged themselves to the great task of building a nation based on these inalienable rights: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”  May we always make the same pledge that our nation may always be great.