The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night

Tonight’s readings

Dear Brothers and Sisters, how good it feels to say “Alleluia” tonight!  Ever since we put the acclamation of our Resurrection joy away some forty days ago, we have been yearning for the opportunity to celebrate, once again, the fullness of our salvation.  And this is the night!  This is the night when Jesus Christ breaks the prison-bars of death and rises triumphant over the grave!  We have kept vigil for the fullness of that promise to be revealed, and now, here we are!  How could we do anything less than shout “Alleluia” with all of our joy?!

Tonight, we have gathered in the oppressive darkness of the world around us.  The sadness of sin and death, culminating in the death of our Savior, seemed for a time to have triumphed.  We know, only too well, that it was our sins that brought Jesus to the Cross: it was indeed our infirmities that he bore, our brokenness on display for all the world to see.  So as we gathered in a dark Church or out on the dark piazza, we certainly must have felt that sadness in a special way.  But we know the whole story, don’t we?  And because we do know the whole story, even in our experience of sadness, there is that expectation, that part of us that knows that joy is on its way.

As we have gathered over the last three nights to let the story of our salvation unfold, we have had an ever-heightened sense of yearning for the story to come to its fruition.  And tonight, we are treated to an even greater dose of that.  Tonight, we have heard stories of God’s desire to bring us back to him.  We have seen that time and time again, God has broken through the history of our brokenness, has triumphed over the lure of sin, and has redirected his chosen ones to the path of life.  We have recalled that God created everything to reflect the resplendent goodness that is God; we have seen Abraham, on the cusp of inheriting the promise of eternity for all his descendants, called upon to sacrifice his only son to show his love, only to have it all turned on its head when God promises to provide the lamb for the sacrifice, that lamb that is the foreshadowing of a Savior; we have seen Moses lead the people out of the Egypt that has held them slaves to sin, through the desert of desolation and yearning for God, safely through the waters of the Red Sea which flowed back to wash all their sins away, that journey that is the prefiguring of the sacrament of Baptism; then the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel have called us to come to the water, to be nourished freely and cleansed of our impurities.

Tonight we have heard in reading after reading, that God will absolutely not ever abandon his loved and chosen ones to sin and death.  We have heard that God initiated the covenant and pursues it forever, never forcing us to accept his will, but willing that we should follow him and accept his mercy.  God has provided the lamb of salvation, the acceptable sacrifice which brings salvation to the whole world.  God has gone to the cross and been in the tomb and descended to hell – there is nowhere that is beyond the reach of God’s mercy, there is no place, no depth to which God will not go to redeem his beloved creation.  God’s mercy endures forever!

God delights in the freedom of will that we possess as a natural part of who we are, because it gives us the opportunity to freely choose to love him, as he freely chooses to love us.  But he knows that same free will can and will also lead us astray, into sin, into evil.  The free choice to love God is a greater good than the absence of evil, so not imbuing us with free will was never an option.  Instead, evil and sin and our fallenness are redeemed on this most holy of all nights, this night which “dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.”

And thus it is fitting that this night is the night when we focus on Baptism.  Everything is in place: the waters of the Red Sea are parted, the pillar of fire glows to the honor of God, we are led to grace and joined to God’s holy ones of every time and place, Christ emerges triumphant from the underworld and the sin of Adam is redeemed forever.  And so Korrin, our Elect, in a few moments will enter the waters of Baptism from the west: that place of the setting sun, renouncing the prince of darkness, professing faith in God, dying with Christ in the waters, emerging to new life, triumphant with Christ on the east, and encountering the bright morning star whose light blazes for all eternity.  We will hold our breath as the waters flow over her, and sing Alleluia when she is reborn, crying out the praise of God with all the joy the Church can muster!

Our joy will continue to overflow as she and Brian, our candidate for full Communion with the Church, are Confirmed in the Holy Spirit and fed for the very first time with the Eucharistic Bread of Life and Cup of Eternal Salvation.  God’s mercy has once again triumphed and brought two wonderful young people into the family of the Church and the community of our parish.  God’s goodness shows forth all its splendor in so many wonderful ways on this most holy of all nights!

This is the night that redeems all of our days and nights.  This is the night when sin and death are rendered impotent by the plunging of the Paschal candle, the Light of Christ, into the waters of Baptism.  On this night, everything is turned upside-down; sin and death no longer define who we are as human beings; the forces of evil search in vain for darkness in which to cower, because the bright morning star has washed the darkness away.  On this night, the waters of Baptism kill death, wash away faults and wickedness, give refreshment to those who are parched for holiness, and bring life to all who have withered in the desert of brokenness.

And so, may the flame of our joy, blazing against the darkness of the world’s night, be found still burning by the Morning Star:  the one Morning Star who never sets, Christ our Lord, God’s only Son, who coming back from even from the depths of death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity, and lives and reigns for ever and ever!  Amen!

The Fourth Sunday of Lent [A] (Laetare Sunday)

Today’s readings

I don’t know about you, but I feel like today’s Liturgy of the Word starts off by giving us all a slap in the face.  And it’s needed.  How many of us judge others without even getting to know them?  How often do we decide who people are and what they’re like just by a first glance, or where they live, or even who they know?  It’s a habit we learned in junior high school, or maybe even earlier, and we never seem to outgrow it.  Shame on us for that, because God is clear with Samuel: “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance, but the LORD looks into the heart.”  So we have to stop judging others before we get to know them; we have to learn to see them as God sees them.  We need to see with the eyes of God.

 

Whenever I hear this reading, I think of my dad.  He was the typical Irish guy who never met a stranger, and it was frankly a little irritating to go grocery shopping with him.  He’d bump in to a couple of people he knew while we were shopping, one or two more in the checkout line, and probably at least one more while the rest of us were loading the groceries in the car! But that was because dad was a man who always seemed to see the best in people.  At his wake a few years ago now, we were all overwhelmed by the incredible number of people who came and shared with us how they were inspired by him and encouraged by him, all because Dad saw something special in them.  I think dad had some inkling of the vision God wants us to have in this first reading.

 

So the theme for this week’s liturgy is vision and light.  The gospel gets at that pretty quickly, healing the man born blind in the first couple of minutes of what is admittedly a pretty long reading.  And that’s a good thing because, honestly, who cares about the man born blind?  I know that sounds terrible, but he lived a couple thousand years ago, and he was healed, so you know, good for him, but how does that affect us?  I’ll tell you how it affects us: the man born blind is us.  We all have affected vision: that’s why the first reading is such a slap in our faces.  So we have to decide today if we are the man born blind who is easily and quickly healed, or if we want to be the Pharisees who, at the end of the day, never regain their sight because they just don’t want to.

 

So maybe you’re asking the same question those Pharisees asked, “surely we are not also blind, are we?”  Of course we are.  That’s why we have Lent: to realize our brokenness and to accept the healing power of Christ.  Lent calls us to remember that we are dust, that we are broken people fallen into sin, but that none of that is any match for the power of Christ risen from the dead, if we just let him put a little clay on our eyes.

 

Today’s Gospel then is a kind of journey to clearer vision. We are all born blind, in a sense, and it takes the presence of Jesus to clear our vision. Just as the man born blind was sent to the pool of Siloam, we too are sent to the waters of baptism, which clears our eyes and helps us to really see. In baptism, the darkness of life is transformed by the presence of Christ, the Light of the World. During the course of all the questionings that follow, the man’s vision becomes clearer and clearer. At first he doesn’t know who Jesus is or where to find him. Later on he testifies that Jesus is a prophet and finally, with the help of Jesus’ instruction, that Jesus is the Son of Man and worthy of worship. We make this same journey ourselves. From the waters of baptism, we need to continue the conversation and return to Christ again and again to grow in our faith.  We grow in the way that we see Jesus through our lives.  Our faith when we were young is not the same faith that works for us later in life.  At one point Jesus is a friend walking with us on life’s path; later on he might be a rock that helps us in a particularly stormy time of life.  Still later, he might be the one calling us to become something new, something better than we think we can attain.  Jesus is always the same, but we are different, and Jesus is with us at every point of life’s journey, if we open our eyes to see him.

 

Traditionally, today is Laetare Sunday – laetare being Latin for “rejoice.”  That’s why we’re wearing these rose-colored vestments today.  We are now pretty much half way through Lent, and with eyes recreated by our own trips to the pool of Siloam – the waters of baptism – we can begin to catch a glimpse of Easter joy.  Laetare Sunday reminds us that even in the penance of Lent, that it’s not penance for penance’s own sake: there is reason for rejoicing.  It might be good, then, to ask ourselves, what in the world gives us cause to rejoice today, here and now, in our own lives?

 

In a few weeks, the Mass of the Easter Vigil will begin by telling us all the reasons we should rejoice.  That Mass begins with the sung Easter Proclamation – the Exsultet – which tells the whole story of God’s mercy and sings God’s praises.  It is sung in the darkened church, proclaiming that, even in the darkness of our world affected as it is with blindness, the light of God’s mercy still reigns and has power to overcome everything that keeps us from the true Light of the world.  It begins: Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels! Exult, all creation around God’s throne! Jesus Christ our King is risen! Sound the trumpet of salvation!

 

That proclamation of the Exsultet almost seems out of place in our world today. All we have to do is pick up a newspaper to see the darkness that pervades our lives. Wars and terrorism claim so many lives.  Crime in its many forms takes its toll on our society.  Injustice and oppression still exist in our own nation and abroad.  The poor still hunger and thirst for the basic necessities of life.  In our own lives, we see sin that has not been confessed.  Bad habits that have not been broken.  Love and mercy that have been withheld.  All of these blind us to the vision Christ wants for us.  But to that darkness, the Exsultet sings: Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor, radiant in the brightness of your King! Christ has conquered! Glory fills you! Darkness vanishes for ever!

 

What’s great about the Exsultet, I think, is the kind of “in your face” attitude it has about joy.  Yes, the world can be a dark place, but that darkness is no match for the light that Christ brings to the world.  Yes there is sorrow and sin and death, but they are no match for the joy of Eternal Life, the life that comes only from Christ’s triumph over the grave.  Of this kind of joy, the Exsultet sings: What good would life have been to us, had Christ not come as our Redeemer? Father, how wonderful your care for us! How boundless your merciful love! To ransom a slave, you gave away your Son.

 

Today’s Liturgy is a call for all of us to attend to our vision.  Do we see others as God sees them?  Do we even see ourselves as God sees us?  How do we see Christ at work in our lives and in our world?  Where we encounter obstacles to the clear vision that we must have in this darkened world, we should set them aside and allow Christ to anoint our eyes so that we can see as God sees, this God who sees into the heart.  Then as the darkness that exists in our own lives is transformed to light, maybe our little corner of the world can know compassion amidst sorrow, comfort amidst mourning, mercy against intolerance, love against hatred, and the peace that passes all of our understanding in every place we walk.  May we carry the flame of God’s love into our world to brighten every darkness and bring joy to every sorrow.  May the Morning Star which never sets find this flame still burning: Christ that Morning Star, who came back from the dead, and shed his peaceful light on all humankind, your Son who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

In today’s Gospel, Jesus prepares seventy-two disciples to go out on mission.  They are to go out in twos, preaching the Gospel and healing the sick.  He sent them out to villages he himself intended to visit, more or less preparing the way for him.  It’s a moving story about how Jesus was able to accomplish much through the ministry of the seventy-two, even without being physically present with them.  But it’s not just a moving story, right?  You know as well as I do that the reason we all got to hear that story today is because we’re being sent out on mission too.  When the time comes for us to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” we have to be like the seventy-two, preparing hearts and lives for Jesus, preaching the Gospel, healing the sick.

So although we could read today’s Gospel as a nice academic exercise about what Jesus expected disciples to do, that’s not how we’re going to read it.  Instead, the Church gives us this Gospel so that, in our own mission, we will have a discipleship handbook.

If I could sum up today’s Gospel reading in a few short words, I think those words would be: discipline brings joy.  But I think those words aren’t easy for our world to hear; maybe they’re not even easy for us disciples to hear.  But for now, let’s bookmark the idea that discipline brings joy, and I promise I’ll come back to it.  But first, I would like to take a closer look at the Gospel reading and pull out some of the disciplines Jesus wants those first disciples, as well as you and me, to learn.

So the first discipline is this: don’t rely on yourself. Listen to the instructions Jesus gives the seventy-two before they leave: “Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals…” Now that all seems pretty impractical to those of us who have to travel in the twenty-first century, doesn’t it? I mean, the only possible instruction in there that would make our travel at all easy is to wear no sandals – bare feet sure travel easier through security checkpoints! But we definitely need a money bag to carry what we’d need to pay tolls and buy fuel, and certainly we’d need a sack to carry identification as well as just basic things we’d need for the journey.

This discipline is a hard one for me, because I always over-pack for a trip! But I think we’re missing the point here. If we were even able to foresee every possibility and pack for every possible need, we would certainly not need Jesus, would we? Jesus is telling the seventy-two, and us as well, to stop worrying and start following. Rely on Jesus because he is trustworthy. Experience the joy of letting Jesus worry about the small stuff while he is doing big things in and through us.

Second, Jesus tells us to “greet no one along the way.”  That sounds pretty inhospitable, doesn’t it?  We would think he’d want us to greet everyone we can, but that’s not what’s at stake here.  The point is, along the way, we can easily be derailed from the mission.  Other things can seem to be important, other people can try to get us off track, Satan can make so many other things seem important along the way.  The point here is that there is urgency to the mission.  People have to hear that Jesus is Lord and that God loves them now, not later, when it may be too late.  We have to get the show on the road, and the time is now.

The third discipline is: go in peace. Jesus says to the seventy-two: “Into whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this household.’ If a peaceful person lives there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you.” Those disciples were sent out with the peace of Christ, and were told to expect to be received in peace. The source of the peace they were sent out in was, of course, Jesus himself. The peace he is offering is not just the absence of conflict. In fact, their journeys may indeed involve some conflict: conflict with demons, conflict with illness, conflict with those who may not receive them or want to hear the Gospel. No, the peace he sends the seventy-two out with is a peace that they receive from knowing they are doing God’s will and that souls are coming back to God. It is a peace that says that everyone and everything is in right relationship, the way things are supposed to be.

The disciples are told to enter a place and say “Peace to this household.” So we too must also offer this greeting of peace to those we come to work with. There are a lot of ways to make this greeting, though. We could say it in those words, or perhaps through our actions: in not returning violence with violence; doing our best to diffuse anger and hatred; treating all people equally; respecting the rights of both the well-established and the newcomer; working to make neighborhoods and communities less violent; protecting the abused and the ridiculed. This peace is a peace that is authentic and that really works.

The fourth discipline, then, is: eat and drink what is set before you. This is again a trust issue. The seventy-two are to trust that since the laborer deserves his payment, the Lord will provide for what they need. But there’s a bit more to it, I think. Eating and drinking what is set before them meant that if they were to be given ministry that is difficult, they needed to stay with it, because that’s what was set before them. If they have been received in peace, then they need to know that they are in the right place. That doesn’t mean that the mission would be easy, though, and they need to take what’s given to them. We too have to know that our mission may not be easy, but if we have been given it in peace, we have to accept the mission we have. We are called to accept people and situations as they are and trust God to perfect our efforts.

The final discipline is this: do not move from one house to another.  It’s not that Jesus doesn’t want us to spread the Good News.  The discipline Jesus is teaching here is that we have to be focused in our ministry.  Once we have been given the mission, we have to stay with it, and not be blown about like the wind.  We are called to stay with a person or a situation until what God wants to happen happens.  When it’s time to move on, God will let us know, and we will come to know that time through prayer and discernment.

The disciplines Jesus teaches us today are difficult ones.  In some cases, they’re even counterintuitive.  But if we want to accomplish what God wants to accomplish, then we have to do it his way, in his time.  We have to get ourselves out of the way and let him work in us and through us.  That discipline will bring the joy I spoke of at the beginning of my homily today.

Blessed Mother Teresa once said, “Joy is prayer – Joy is strength – Joy is love – Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.” Joyous disciples are the ones who bring unbelievers to the faith. They are the ones that bring God’s love to the forgotten and the sorrowful. They are the ones that make God’s presence and care known to those who have been marginalized and exploited. Following the discipline of Christ by relying on Christ – not ourselves, by bringing the peace of God to our missionary encounters, and by eating and drinking what the mission sets before us, this is the way to true joy. This is the joy of which the Psalmist sings, “Shout joyfully to God, all the earth, sing praise to the glory of his name!”

Wednesday of the Third Week of Easter

Today’s readings

As Catholics, we believe that opposite things don’t necessarily cancel each other out.  For instance, we believe, as our first reading today illustrates, that we can have joy in the midst of sorrow.  The early Community found themselves severely persecuted.  Saul, for whom God had future plans, was currently doing his best to destroy the Christian Way, and he was not alone.  Many suffered and died as St. Stephen did in yesterday’s reading, and others were exiled from their homes.  But even in the midst of that, St. Philip was doing Christ’s work quite successfully in Samaria.  There was great joy in that city.  To some, that would seem so contradictory and out-of-whack.  But for us, we know that this is how life is.  There is sadness, and there is joy, and all of it is a gift in some way.  Even today, some of us may have sadness, and others joy.  May we experience it with peace as the early Community did.

The Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today’s readings

assumptionThe tradition of the Assumption of Mary dates back to the very earliest days of the Church, all the way back to the days of the apostles. It was known that Mary had “fallen asleep” and that there is a “Tomb of Mary” close to Mount Zion, where the early Christian community had lived. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 tells us that, after Mary’s death, the apostles opened the tomb, finding it empty, and concluded that she had been taken bodily into heaven. The tradition was spoken about by the various fathers of the Church, and in the eighth century, St. John Damascene wrote, “Although the body was duly buried, it did not remain in the state of death, neither was it dissolved by decay . . . . You were transferred to your heavenly home, O Lady, Queen and Mother of God in truth.” The current celebration of Mary’s Assumption has taken place since 1950, when Pope Pius XII proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption of Mary in his encyclical, Munificentissimus Deus, saying: “The Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heaven.”[1]

And so we have gathered here this morning to celebrate the life of Mary, Mother of God, the first of the disciples of Jesus her son.  And there is plenty to celebrate in her life.  We who would be Jesus’ disciples too, can learn much from the way she lived her discipleship.  We can see in her life, I think, at least three qualities of discipleship.  The first is joy.  She is one who not only allowed something incredibly unbelievable to be done in her, but allowed it with great joy. That she did this with joy tells us something very important about who she was. Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” Those who live with joy, true joy, do so because God is at work in them and God is at work through them. Mary knew this from the moment the angel came to her.

The second quality we see in Mary’s prayer is humility. She knew this wasn’t about her; this was about what God was doing in her and through her. It wasn’t she that did great things, no, “the Almighty has done great things for me,” she tells us, “and holy is his Name!”  The third quality is faith: Mary’s simple faith allowed her to say “yes” to God’s will and made possible the salvation of the world.  Because of that faith, she had a bond with our Savior beyond anything we could ever hope for.  Indeed without Mary’s fiat, her great leap of faith, the salvation of humanity may have gone quite poorly.

What is important for us to see in this feast, though, is that it proclaims with all the joy the Church can muster that what happened to Mary can and will happen for us who believe. We too have the promise of eternal life in heaven, where death and sin and pain will no longer have power over us. Because Christ caught his Blessed Mother back up into his life in heaven, we know that we too can be caught up with his life in heaven. On that great day, death, the last enemy, will be completely destroyed, as St. Paul tells us today.

Mary’s life wasn’t always easy, but Mary’s life was redeemed. That is good news for us who have difficult lives or fine it hard to live our faith. Because there are those among us too who have unplanned pregnancies. There are those among us whose children go in directions that put them in danger. There are those among us who have to watch a child die. But because Mary suffered these sorrows too, and yet was exalted, we can hope for the day when that which she was given and which we have been promised will surely be ours.

Mary’s life was a prophecy for us.  Like Mary, we are called to a specific vocation to do God’s work in the world.  We too are called to make sacrifices so that God’s work can be accomplished in us and through us.  We too can be joyful because God is at work in us.  We too are called to humility that let’s God’s love for others shine through our lives.  We too are called to lives of faith that translate into action on behalf of others, a faith that leads God’s people to salvation.  And we too, one day, will share in the glory that Mary has already received in the kingdom of God.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.


[1] http://www.ewtn.com/library/ANSWERS/AOFMARY.HTM

Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

“You will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices;
you will grieve, but your grief will become joy.”

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

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

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

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

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

I think we get the point here, don’t we? The second reading and the Gospel tell us what John wants us to know about the Gospel: God is love. That’s a wonderful theme that runs all through John’s Gospel and the Letters of John. And today, deep into the Easter season, we have a beautiful presentation of what that love should look like, what it should accomplish, and where it should lead us.

And it’s an important road map for us, I think. We get all kinds of notions about what love is and what it’s not. But mostly these are pretty erroneous. Even our own language has a paltry expression of love, because for us love can mean so many different things. I can say, “cookies are my favorite food – I love cookies!” and that’s not the kind of love Jesus wants us to know about today. When we say “love” in our language, we could mean an attraction, like puppy love, or we could mean that we like something a lot, or we might even be referring to sex. And none of that is adequate to convey the kind of love that is the hallmark of Jesus’ disciples.

To really see what Jesus meant by love in today’s Gospel, we have to see what he was doing. Today’s Gospel has him readying the disciples for the mission. He has them gathered together and reassures them that whatever their personal gifts or failings, they have been chosen for the mission. And it was just that – he chose them, they didn’t choose him. And they had been chosen to do something very important for the kingdom of God. They have been chosen to create a legacy – to bear fruit that will remain. He could have given them all sorts of detailed instructions on how to go about doing this, but that’s not what he did. He gave them just one instruction: “This is my commandment: love one another.” It is that love that will bring lasting joy to his disciples.

But he does get more detailed in his description of what it means to love one another. “Love one another as I have loved you,” he says to them. And that’s an important point, I think: “as I have loved you.” In the same way I have loved you. And we can see how far Jesus took that – all the way to the cross. He loved us enough to take our sins upon himself and nail them to the cross, dying to pay the price for those sins, and being raised from the dead to smash the power of those sins to control our eternity. So the love that Jesus is talking about here is sacrificial. And he says it rather plainly in one of my favorite pieces of Holy Scripture: “No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

And the disciples clearly were called to that kind of sacrificial love. The Twelve all experienced martyrdom, except for John. They literally died so that people would come to know about Jesus, the Gospel, and God’s love. Their love did indeed bear fruit that would remain – it remained to found a Church, to spread the Gospel to many lands, to bring the message to us even in our own day.

And the disciples were men and women who experienced joy. Which isn’t the same thing as saying they were always happy. They experienced a lot of opposition along the way to founding the Church. They were persecuted, thrown out of the synagogues, beaten for stirring up trouble, put to death for their faith in Christ. But they were still people of joy. Because in their love, the sacrificial love that they received from Christ who chose them and gave them the love to start with, they had found a source of joy that could not be controlled by external circumstances.

So that’s what Jesus meant by love in today’s Gospel. It was a sacrificial love that was contagious, joyfully bringing the Good News to the world, bearing fruit that would remain for eternity. True love gives without counting the cost. True love brings others to heaven.

And the thing is, the instruction to love wasn’t meant just for those first disciples. We know that it was meant for us too. Interestingly enough, this Gospel was also the Gospel for Mass this past Friday, and I celebrated with the third, fourth, and fifth graders from our school. I asked the fourth graders to make posters of what this kind of sacrificial love might mean for them. I thought I might show you what they came up with…

So I think the fourth graders got it. On their level, they knew they could do little things with great love that would bear fruit that would remain and bring joy to themselves and others. It’s a lesson we could all use to hear now and then.

We may never be asked to literally lay down our lives for those we love, although that kind of thing does happen all the time. People who give a kidney or bone marrow for another literally lay down their lives in love, maybe even for someone they don’t know very well. People who take a risk to pull someone out of the path of an oncoming vehicle on the street – those are the kinds of ways that people might live this Gospel message quite literally. But for most of us, the call to sacrificial love might be more along the lines of what our fourth graders had in mind.

So we’re going to look for opportunities this week to love sacrificially. Doing a chore that’s not our job and not making a big thing of it. Finding an opportunity to encourage a spouse or child with a kind word that we haven’t offered in a long time. Picking the neighbor’s trash can up out of the street when it’s been a windy day. It doesn’t matter how big or small the thing is we do, what matters is the love we put into it. Mother Theresa once said, “I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I do know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, he will NOT ask, ‘How many good things have you done in your life?’, rather he will ask, ‘How much LOVE did you put into what you did?’”

When we are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to love, there is no way we can miss the joy that Jesus wants us to have today. “Love one another as I have loved you” might be a big challenge, but it might just be the greatest joy of our lives.

Saturday of the Fourth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

Now think about this just for a minute – pretend you are Paul or Barnabas or one of the other apostles. Think about all the things they went through in that first reading. Paul hasn’t even been a Christian for very long, and already he is being hounded and persecuted. Maybe that makes sense because I’m sure some people viewed his conversion as a kind of treason. Whatever the case, as they speak out boldly in the name of Jesus, they receive nothing but violent abuse from the Jews. So they turn then to the Gentiles who were delighted to hear the Word preached to them. But the Jews didn’t even leave that alone; they stirred up some of the prominent Gentiles to persecute Paul and Barnabas and eventually they expelled them from their territory. What a horrible reception they received over and over again.

But, listen to the last line of that first reading again: “The disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.”

Really? Think about it. Would that be your reaction? Or would you say, “enough is enough” and let God stir up someone else to preach the Word? Obviously, that’s not what Paul and Barnabas, or any of the other disciples did, or we wouldn’t be here today. No, they were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God!

That’s the way joy works. It’s not something conditioned by the external events of a person’s life. Joy is not a feeling. Joy, instead, is a direct result of the disciple’s decision to give their life to Christ and to follow his way. Joy does not mean that the disciple won’t experience sadness or even hard times. I have experienced that in my own life, and I’m sure you have too. But joy does mean that the disciple will never give in to the sadness or the hard times because all those things have been made new in Christ.

Christ is the source of our true joy. We disciples must choose to live lives of joy and remain unaffected by the world and the events of our lives. We choose joy because we know the One who is our Salvation, and because it is he who fills us with joy and the Holy Spirit.

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Today's readings [display_podcast]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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