Thursday of the Tenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Sometimes the Gospel just makes good common sense.  Today, the Gospel expands on the Golden Rule, something we should all have learned when we were very little.  As my grandmother used to say, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.  But actually what Jesus is telling us today goes a bit deeper even than that.  Jesus equates the hatred in our hearts with outright murder.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church takes up this theme from this very Gospel reading: “Deliberate hatred is contrary to charity. Hatred of the neighbor is a sin when one deliberately wishes him evil. Hatred of the neighbor is a grave sin when one deliberately desires him grave harm. ‘But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.’” (CCC, 2303)

Today might be a good time for us to examine our consciences for sins against the fifth commandment.  Jesus says that these include murder and abortion, certainly.  But also hatred, vengeance and anger.  This might be a good time for us to call to mind those we have yet to forgive, and to pray for the grace to forgive them.  Or at least the grace to want to forgive them.  This might be a good time for us to look deep within us and ferret out any traces of racism, which is simply hatred directed at a certain group or race.  Casual racist jokes and stereotyping are evidence of a hatred that may be buried deep within us that comes out in inappropriate ways.  Today’s Gospel even hints that gossip, backbiting, and sarcasm directed at a brother or sister in Christ is an attitude that detracts from the dignity of another’s life and has no place in the heart or mind of the disciple.

“I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says to us today.  Our witness to the life and dignity of the human person must be absolutely above reproach, or our witness for life is a sham.  And worse than that, we will have opted out of the Kingdom of heaven.

Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of the Lord

Today’s readings

“Do not be amazed!” – I just love that line in the Gospel.  We have to get behind the sentiment of that statement today if we are to really understand what this day is all about.  We believe in a God who is very surprising.  All through the Bible, we can read stories of people trying to come to terms with God, and just when they thought they had him all figured out, he bursts in to their complacency and seems to say, “No, that’s not it, you just don’t get me at all, do you?”

That happens to us too, doesn’t it?  God surprises us all the time.  Most often, people think about the bad surprises: the death of a loved one, an illness, loss of a job.  But God didn’t make those surprises; he allows them in this imperfect world, but they are not his will for us.  What is his will for us is what truly surprises us: the grace to deal with a difficult situation with a strength we never knew we had, the help of a friend or loved one at just the right time, words spoken by a stranger or an acquaintance that help us to find the ability to journey on from where we are.  And in our surprise, God says, “Do not be amazed!”

To really get how surprising this day must have been for Jesus’ disciples, we have to recall the story to this point.  Jesus had been doing wonderful, amazing things: healing the sick, raising the dead, speaking words of challenge and hope.  The Jewish leaders of the time became more and more uncomfortable with his message, seeing it as blasphemy and a rejection of everything good and holy.  More and more, their anger raged up, and many times they attempted to arrest him.  Finally, the movement against him rises to a fever pitch.  Judas, who perhaps thought he would get rich off this wonder-worker Jesus, grows disillusioned to the point that he is willing to hand Jesus over to them.

Jesus’ hour had come: he was put through a farce of a trial, brutally beaten and contemptuously treated.  Finally he is nailed to a cross and suffers hours of agony and abandonment by most of his disciples before he gives us his spirit at last.  All seemed darker than dark.  Jesus is placed in a tomb that was not his own by people who had just been acquaintances.  His friends have fled in fear.  His mother and some women wept at the end of it all.  Things couldn’t have been worse or more hopeless.

But then came the morning!  Some of the women go to anoint his body for its burial, and just when they are wondering who is going to help them roll the stone away so they can get in to the tomb, they come upon the tomb, open and empty.  They were utterly amazed – they didn’t even know what had actually happened.  But as they stood there, mouths hanging open, thoughts reeling in their minds, the messenger appears: “Do not be amazed!” Jesus said he would rise, and rise he did, hammering home the point that hopeless situations are no obstacle to God’s power, that fear is no match for grace, that death and darkness are nothing compared to God’s great love.  Do not be amazed!

Even that is not where the wonder of it all stopped.  In their joy, the disciples eventually recollected themselves and were able to go out and tell people what had happened.  Christ, crucified, overcame death to rise to new life.  In the light of the resurrection, they came to understand what Jesus had always preached and they also received the grace of the Spirit so that they could preach it to others.  Their preaching shaped the Church, guiding it through the centuries to our own day.

Today we gather not just to remember an amazing event that happened two thousand years ago, but rather to experience the joy of that resurrection with those women at the tomb, with the disciples who heard about it from them, with all the people from every time and place, on earth and in heaven, all of us who have had the Gospel preached to us.  We are the Church: we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus as one.  Do not be amazed!

And the marvel continues: the death and resurrection of Christ has had an effect on this cold and dark and sinful world.  Through that wonderful saving grace, the finality of our death has been obliterated, the vicious cycle of our sins has been erased.  We have been freed from it all through the power of grace, freely given if we will freely accept it, lavished out on all of us prodigal ones who return to God with sorrow for our sins and hope for forgiveness.  We have truly been saved and delivered.  Do not be amazed!

We have also been given the great gift of eternal life.  In his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has broken the prison-bars of death and risen triumphant from the underworld.  Because of that, our graves will never be our final resting place, pain and sorrow and death will be temporary, and we who believe and follow our risen Lord have hope of life that lasts forever.  Just as Christ’s own time on the cross and in the grave was brief, so our own pain, death, and burial will be as nothing compared to the ages of new life we have yet to receive.  We have hope in these days because Christ who is our hope has overcome the obstacles to our living.  Do not be amazed!

This morning, we gather to celebrate that our God makes amazing things happen.  Through the cross and resurrection we are saved and delivered so to live the salvation, life and resurrection that God always intended for us to have.  Sin and death have been defeated and no longer hold ultimate power over us.  God is not dead and we courageously proclaim that he is risen!  Do not be amazed!

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

The Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I’m not very good at it, and I don’t do it much any more, but I used to help plant a family garden.  Now my sister mostly does that.  What’s remarkable to me about a garden is that the seed that is planted looks, for all the world, lifeless … like something that is already dead.  But when you put it in fertile soil, give it some water and nourishment, let the sun shine on it, well it grows up to become something wonderful: flowers to delight us, vegetables for our table.

A couple of weeks ago, not long after I started here at Saint Mary’s, I went on a walk with Father John.  We passed by one of the corn fields, and as I often am when I pass cornfields, I was really struck by the straight and orderly rows of corn that grow there.  The farmers take great care, it seems to me, to make sure they are planted that way.  So when I hear the story we have in today’s Gospel reading about seed being scattered willy-nilly all over the place, some of it not even landing on suitable soil, well, it makes me wonder.

But the original hearers of the parable would have understood what Jesus was saying.  It was a method used at that time: seed would be scattered, and then the soil would be tilled thus planting the seeds.  And so they would have understood that sometimes the seed falls in places the farmer didn’t intend, and those seeds don’t come to life, or if they do, it’s not for long, and it’s no big deal.

So Jesus explains the parable for his disciples and for us.  The seed is the seed of faith.  God scatters it with wild abandon, pouring it out freely that his chosen ones – which obviously includes you and me – would come to know him.  Sometimes it works: we receive the seed of faith, it’s watered in the sacrament of baptism, fed with the Eucharist and the other sacraments, and we make of ourselves fertile ground, letting it come up and grow and give life to the world.  But sometimes, of course it doesn’t work out that way.

The seed might fall in a place where the faith is not nourished and Christ is not known.  Maybe it’s a foreign land without benefit of missionaries, but it could even be a little closer to home.  Perhaps the seed falls on those whose turbulent lives can’t give the seed any roots: they receive the word of God with joy, but the trials and tribulations of daily living upset everything and the faith never really sinks in.  Or, maybe it falls on us embroiled as we are with the cares of the world.  The “weeds” of our living are improper relationships, too much time playing video games or surfing the wrong places of the internet, watching too much television, wasting time on passing things.  There is so much that can distract us from our faith, and too often, we are not as diligent about weeding the gardens of our souls the way we should be.

We, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, are called to be rich, fertile ground to give life to the faith planted in our hearts.  That means that we must keep ourselves fresh by renewing the waters of baptism in our hearts.  We must feed that seed of faith by dedicating ourselves to the Eucharist and coming to Mass all the time, whether it’s convenient or not.  We must weed out the distractions of our lives and give that seed of faith room to grow.  We must shine the brilliant sunlight of God’s love on that faith by living the Gospel and reaching out in love to brothers and sisters who are in need.

We are the ones who have been called to yield “a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”  The seed of faith comes in the form of something that might look dead – Christ’s saving action on the cross.  When we water and feed and weed and let the light shine on that faith, we can give life to the world around us and give witness that the world’s death is no match for the salvation we have in Christ.

Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of the Lord

Today’s readings

There’s certainly a flurry of activity in today’s readings, isn’t there? Especially in the Gospel, we see Mary Magdalene run from the empty tomb to get the Apostles. And then Peter and the “disciple whom Jesus loved” ran to the tomb. This flurry of activity centers around a crisis in their faith, a time of confusion that will ultimately lead to stronger faith.

So Mary comes to the tomb, early in the morning, while it is still dark. In St. John’s Gospel, the idea of light or dark always means something more than whether or not you can see outside without a flashlight. Often he is talking about light and darkness in terms of good and evil. That’s the way it was when we heard of Judas in Friday’s Passion reading: when he went out to do what he had to do, the Gospel says “and it was night.” That wasn’t just to record the time of day, it meant that we had come to the hour of darkness. But here when Mary comes to the tomb, I think the darkness refers to something else. Here, I think it means that the disciples were still in the dark about what was happening and what was going to happen.

Obviously, their confusion gives that away. Jesus had tried to tell them what was going to happen, but to be fair, what was going to happen was so far outside their realm of experience, that really, how could they have understood this before it ever happened? All they know is what Mary told them: the tomb is empty and she has no idea of where they have taken the Lord. And after all that had just happened with his arrest, farce of a trial, and execution, their heads had to be spinning. How could they ever know this was all part of God’s plan?

And even us – we who know that this was part of God’s plan – could we explain what was going on? Could we give a step-by-step picture of what happened when, and why? I know I couldn’t. But, like you, I take it on faith that, after Jesus died, the Father raised him up in glory. It’s a leap of faith that I delight in, because it is that leap of faith that gives me hope and promises me a future. How could we ever get through our lives without the grace of that hope? How could we ever endure the bad news that appears on our TV screens, in newspapers, and even closer to home, in our own lives – how could we endure that kind of news without the hope of the Resurrection?

And so, even though there is this flurry of kind of confused activity among the Apostles this Easter morning, at least this day finds them running toward something, rather than running away as they had the night of the Passover meal. They are running toward their Lord – or at least where they had seen him last, hoping for something better, and beginning with the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” coming to understand at last. It’s not night anymore for them. The day is dawning, the hope of the Resurrection is becoming apparent, the promise of new life is on the horizon.

And may this morning find us running too. Running toward our God in new and deeper ways. Running back to the Church if this has been the first visit you’ve made in a long while. Running back to families if you have been estranged. Running to others to witness to our faith both in word and in acts of service. We Christians have to be that flurry of activity in the world that helps the hope of the Resurrection to dawn on a world groaning in darkness. It’s not night anymore. The stone has been rolled away. This is the day the Lord has made!

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

The Fifth Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings

“Lord, by now there will be a stench.”

That’s one of my favorite lines in scripture.  It begs the question I want you to pray about this week, which is, “What in your life really stinks?”  Because we have to have that stench washed away in order to really live.

If you know my preaching, you’re not going to be at all surprised about this, but I have to tell you honestly, our Gospel reading isn’t about Lazarus.  Yes, he got raised from the dead, so good for him, but he isn’t the center of action in the story.  In fact, he’s dead for most of the reading, so he doesn’t play a major part.   Our Gospel today is about Jesus, who through baptism and grace is the remedy for all that stinks in our life.

So Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus is ill.  He knows that Lazarus will die, and he knows that he will raise Lazarus up, so very much like the rest of John’s Gospel, Jesus is in full control.  He delays going to see Lazarus because it will give him the opportunity that will increase faith in the other players in the story.  So when he arrives, Lazarus has been dead four days.  That’s an important detail because it tells us that Lazarus is really, really dead.  The Jews believed that the soul of a person hung around for about three days, but after that, well, he or she was gone forever.  So if Jesus had raised Lazarus on the second day, no big deal.  If on the third day, that would have been a foreshadowing of himself.  But on the fourth day, he raises up someone who is really, really dead: someone just like us.

So just like the man who was born blind last week, we are born dead, in a way.  I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but stay with me.  We are born dead in our sins, and there is nothing we can do to raise ourselves up out of it except for the grace of God.  So the movement in our Gospel today is from life that is so mired in sin that it stinks, to life that is so free of death that burial bands and tombs cannot contain it.

During Lent, we have been journeying with our catechumens, who are now called the Elect, as they prepare to be baptized, confirmed, and receive first Holy Communion at the Easter Vigil.  Much like them, there are three groups of catechumens in today’s Gospel.  The first group is Mary and Martha, those friends of Jesus that are part of John’s Gospel a few times.  Here, the rubber meets the road in their faith.  Here, like so many of us, they have something tragic happen in their lives, and now they have to grapple with whether their faith helps them with that or not.  Mary is so troubled that she doesn’t even go out to meet the Lord until her sister tells her a white lie that Jesus was asking for her.  Both she and Martha, when they first see Jesus, complain that he should have come sooner so that he could have saved Lazarus.  But Martha has a little faith.  She says very importantly that “Even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”  That’s the beginning profession of faith.  She knows that Jesus has power over life and death.  So then they have a little catechetical dialogue about life and death and eternity, and at the end of it, Martha professes that Jesus is the Son of God who was coming into the world.  The sisters move from their grief, to faith in Jesus, even before he accomplishes the miracle.

The second group of catechumens is the Apostles.  God bless them, they’re still trying to make sense of Jesus.  We can’t be too hard on them, because they’re a lot like many of us who are trying to be men and women of faith, but don’t really have all the facts right now.  “Let us also go to die with him,” Thomas says.  And they will, of course: they have to go through the cross before they see and understand Jesus fully.  We too will have to take up our own crosses before we can understand the salvation that Christ has won for us.

The third group of catechumens is the Jews.  A bunch of them are weeping with Mary, and they go with her to see Jesus.  Along the way, they complain that if he could heal the man born blind like he did in last week’s Gospel, why couldn’t he have healed Lazarus?  But seeing the miracle, they come to believe, in the very last verse of this long reading.  They are a lot like those of us who are skeptical for a long time, but see something wonderful materialize in the life of another and finally decide there’s something to this Jesus that’s worth believing in.

Key to all of these catechumens is that, in order to move to belief, they had to have some kind of stench in their lives washed away.  For Martha and Mary, they had to see past their grief.  For the Apostles, they had to get over themselves and realize that Jesus was in charge.  For the Jews, they had to get past their skepticism and let him perform miracles among them.  For all of us, on the journey of faith, some kind of stench has to be washed away, in order to come to full faith in Jesus.  And that stench is, of course, sin.  The way it gets washed away is in baptism.

So if you take away anything from today’s Liturgy, let it be this: this reading is really all about baptism, brothers and sisters in Christ.  Is it a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection?  Well maybe a little.  But it is more about baptism.  Because baptism is a kind of death.  As Saint Paul says in our second reading today, baptism is the kind of death that gives life to our mortal bodies.  It’s hard for us to imagine that kind of thing when the baptisms we’ve seen are just a mere pouring of water over a baby’s head.  But baptism in the early church was full submerging in water while the formula was pronounced, after which they came up out of the water gasping for air.  Believe me, they got the connection of baptism with death and resurrection!

Baptism is what washes away the stench in our lives.  It does that with original sin, and if we live our baptism by participating in the sacraments, it does that with the sins of our daily life.  The sacrament of Penance is an extension in a way of the sacrament of Baptism, in which the sins of our lives are completely washed away, leaving us made new and alive in ways we couldn’t imagine.

So today, Jesus sees us dead in the flesh, stinking of our sins.  But he calls us forth in baptism, rolling away the stone of sin that keeps us from relationship with him, releasing us from the burial-bands that bind us, and calling us to new life.

So maybe in these closing days of Lent, we still have to respond to our Lord’s call to live.  Maybe you haven’t yet been to confession before Easter.  We have confessions all day on Tuesday, and you can come to any of the penance services we have.  We have school confessions at 10:45, and will be hearing confessions until around noon.  Then we have religious education family confessions at 4:45, and a parish penance serve at 7pm.  Come to any of them that fit your schedule.  If you miss that, we will have confessions after the 11:30 Mass next Sunday until all are heard.  And finally, we will have confessions a week from Tuesday, during Holy Week, at 3:00 until all are heard.  We invite you to come and have the stone rolled away and to be untied from your burial cloths.  Wherever you find yourself at this point of Lent, I urge you, don’t let Easter pass with you all bound up and sealed in the grave.  Lent ends just before Evening Prayer on Holy Thursday.  That gives us around ten and a half days to take up our Lenten resolutions anew, or even make new ones, so that we can receive new life in Christ.  Don’t spend these days in the grave.  Come out, be untied, and be let go.

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

When it comes right down to it, we have a choice.  We can choose life or death, blessing or curse, the way of the Cross or the way of the world.  The choice that we make has huge consequences, eternal consequences.  The stakes are big ones, and we must choose wisely.

Many of us can probably recall some point in our lives where we had to make that choice of what we were going to do with our lives, what we wanted to be when we grew up.  That choice can be so confusing, so painful, so difficult to make.  When it finally worked for me was when I finally gave it over to God and asked that he challenge me in a big way.  That’s when I felt the call to go to seminary, which really surprised me, and I resisted it at first.  But when I gave in and let God do what he wanted in my life, when I finally decided to do what God asked me to do, the choice was much easier.  We all need that kind of guidance from the Holy Spirit, and that’s what gets us through those difficult choices in our lives.

The command from Deuteronomy is clear: “Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him.”  The way of the Lord is life-giving, the way of the world is death.  The way of the Lord is blessing, the way of the world is curse.  The passing pleasures of the world are nothing compared to the eternal pleasures of God’s way.  The trials we may experience in this life when we choose to follow God are passing things, and give way to great grace and peace.

Jesus asks us today to make a choice to take up our crosses and follow him.  That’s not always so appealing on a day-to-day basis.  There is great suffering in the cross.  But, as he says, what profit is there for us if we gain the whole world but lose our very selves?  Blessed, the Psalmist tells us, is the one who walks in the way of the Lord and follows not the counsel of the wicked.  May we all this day choose life, that we and our descendants might live.

The Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Baptism at Mass

Today’s readings

Today’s readings about the two widows highlight the plight of widows in the ancient world. Without a husband, they would necessarily depend on their sons to help provide for them and keep them safe, and so when these two sons died, the widow was vulnerable and very likely would become destitute. But Elijah and Jesus both recognize their plight and, without even being asked, move to right the wrongs of the situation. Restoring their sons to life, they have really restored the life also of those widows, for God is rich in mercy!

Today we celebrate the baptism of a child, and so maybe it’s hard to see how raising two people from the dead can relate to that, but I believe these readings are really all about baptism! Whenever we see death and life in the Scriptures, we really should think about holy baptism, in which our mortal bodies, dead in sin, are raised up to new life in Christ. I’ll be blessing the water of the font in a few minutes, and here are some of the words of that blessing:

May this water receive by the Holy Spirit
the grace of your Only Begotten Son,
so that human nature, created in your image
and washed clean through the Sacrament of Baptism
from all the squalor of the life of old,
may be found worthy to rise to the life of newborn children
through water and the Holy Spirit.

Just as Jesus said to the dead man in today’s Gospel, “Young man, I tell you, arise!” so he says to all who are baptized, “Be raised up, be washed clean, take possession of new life!” And so in the raising of the son of the widow of Zarephath and the son of the widow of Nain, we see the precursor of holy Baptism, in which God in his great mercy is re-creating the world anew and bringing new life to those whose bodies were dead in their mortality. Baptism is the great gift of new life that our Lord gives to his Church. It is a participation in his own death and Resurrection, in which death and sin are rendered impotent, and we are given new life.

And so, as we hear of life restored to those who were thought to be dead, it is so appropriate that you bring your child here for baptism. In this sacrament, he receives new life in Christ, who wills that all children should come to him and be made new. As you continue to bring your child here to Church for Mass and religious instruction, God will continue to pour out his mercy and grace and give him a life made new in the Holy Spirit.

Raising children these days can be difficult, as we all know. There are so many competing voices out there, so many opportunities for a young person to be tempted away from God, Church, and family. But the good news is that you aren’t expected to raise your child on your own. You are promised in this sacrament of Holy Baptism the grace that will help you in your task as parents, and as he is initiated into the Church today, you receive the promise of the Church’s help in teaching him and helping him to know God and his love.

The Psalmist today sings of this hope that we have in Christ and in this sacrament. He sings:

I will extol you, O LORD, for you drew me clear
and did not let my enemies rejoice over me.
O LORD, you brought me up from the nether world;
you preserved me from among those going down into the pit.

There is no death that can overcome our new life in Christ. Praise God for the gift of our baptism which raises us up and makes us new!

All Souls Remembrance Mass

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-9 | Psalm 23 | Romans 14:7-9, 10c-12 | Matthew 25:31-46

One of my most vivid childhood memories was when I was just about nine years old. My grandfather on my mother’s side, who had retired just a few months earlier, was diagnosed with cancer. There wasn’t so much that could be done about cancer in those days, so he wasn’t expected to live long. And so one night, as the oldest of the children, Mom and Dad came to my room to talk to me about Grandpa. That was the night I learned about life and death, sadness and grief, love and pain. We cried a bunch, hugged a lot, and talked about how we were going to miss him.

I went to the wake and funeral with my family, because that’s what we did when a loved one died. My parents could have shielded me from that experience in many ways, as so many parents do, but they chose not to, and I’m glad they made that decision. Death and grief aren’t things we actively seek, but we can’t be afraid to meet them head on, girded with faith, and confident of the hope we have in Christ Jesus.

I still miss Grandpa to this very day. He had a wonderfully silly sense of humor that never failed to make me laugh and probably rubbed off on me, to be honest; he made a homemade ravioli that blew away anything I’ve ever eaten since; he came from Italy and made a beautiful life for his family, and the stories of that have been an inspiration to me every day. The same is true of all of my grandparents, all who have gone on to the Kingdom, all of whom I miss and all of whom were a great example for me.

I miss Grandma Mulcahy when I’m planting flowers in my Mom’s garden, because she did that better than anyone, and while she did, we would talk about Ireland and I would hear about life in the “Old Country.” I miss Grandma Mastrodonato – Mom’s Mom – when I’m out in a public setting and see people doing crazy things because she always enjoyed people watching and listening to others. I missed Dad’s Dad a lot in my job previous to seminary, because he built the monstrous printing press that was, at the time, printing a job for my one of my customers.

And I miss Dad, so very much. When I’m having a rough day, I just want to sit down and talk, knowing he’d listen and understand, and support me in whatever way I needed. And there are aunts and uncles who have gone on to the Lord, too. All of these characters have been inspirational to me in some way, and I find that the grieving, while it may dissipate a bit, never seems to completely go away. I don’t think it’s supposed to. Because when we have loved much, the passing away of one we have loved leaves a hole in our life that shouldn’t go away. That doesn’t mean that our life comes to an end: we move on, as move on we must, but always with a sense of loss, hopefully tempered with fondness for the relationship we had, hopeful of a reunion in heaven one day.

“For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” So says Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans from today’s second reading. That is our prayer for our loved ones, for all the faithful departed. Because, if we are convinced of that grace, we know they are alright, and have hope that we will be alright too. And our Liturgy gives us words to hope on as well. In a few moments, I will sing the words that have comforted me so many times in my sorrow: “Indeed, for your faithful, Lord, life is changed, not ended, and when this earthly dwelling turns to dust, an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven.” This echoes the words of the Prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading: “The Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces; The reproach of his people he will remove from the whole earth; for the Lord has spoken.”

During November, the Church continues to remember those we prayed for on the second day of this month, the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. And for this remembrance, I have chosen to reflect on our experience of grief, and I’ve done that because it’s an experience we all have, on some level, at some time in our lives. I want you to know how very natural grief is, and how very blessed an experience it is. We must always remember that blessed experiences aren’t always pain-free. Our God never flees from our brokenness, instead he has chosen to redeem it.

And so as we remember our loved ones, we offer our prayers for them too. We pray that God might place them one day on his right, saying to them and hopefully us too, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” The goal of all our lives is the life of heaven, and we shall all be restless until we attain that great joy.

And so we are confident, because we know that death only separates us from those we love for a short time, and that death never has the last word because Christ has triumphed over death. The beginning and end of everything is Christ, and Christ is with us in our first moments, and also in our last. He is with us in our pain and with us in our joy. He helps us to remember our loved ones with love that continues beyond our death and beyond the grave. Grief and loss and pain are temporary things for us. Love is eternal, love never ends, love can never be destroyed by death, love leads us all to the great glory of the resurrection and eternal light in that kingdom where Christ has conquered everything, even death itself.

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

The Fifth Sunday of Lent (Scrutiny III)

Today’s readings

“Lord, by now there will be a stench.”

That’s one of my favorite lines in scripture. It begs the question I want you to pray about this week, which is, “What in your life really stinks?” Because we have to have that stench washed away in order to really live.

If you know my preaching, you’re not going to be at all surprised about this, but I have to tell you honestly, our Gospel reading isn’t about Lazarus. Yes, he got raised from the dead, so good for him, but he isn’t the center of action in the story. In fact, he’s dead for most of the reading, so he doesn’t play a major part. The action is, of course centered around Jesus, and as I tell our school children, if on a religion test they write something about Jesus, they should always get at least partial credit! Our Gospel today is about Jesus, who through baptism and grace is the remedy for all that stinks in our life.

So Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus is ill. He knows that Lazarus will die, and he knows that he will raise Lazarus up, so very much like the rest of John’s Gospel, Jesus is in full control. He delays going to see Lazarus because it will give him the opportunity that will increase faith in the other players in the story. So when he arrives, Lazarus has been dead four days. That’s an important detail because it tells us that Lazarus is really, really dead. The Jews believed that the soul of a person hung around for about three days, but after that, well, he or she was gone forever. So if Jesus had raised Lazarus on the second day, no big deal. If on the third day, that would have been a foreshadowing of himself. But on the fourth day, he raises up someone who is really, really dead, someone just like us.

So just like the man who was born blind last week, we are born dead, in a way. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but stay with me. We are born dead in our sins, and there is nothing we can do to raise ourselves up out of it except for the grace of God. So the movement in our Gospel today is from life that is so mired in sin that it stinks, to life that is so free of death that burial bands and tombs cannot contain it.

There are three groups of catechumens in today’s Gospel. The first group is Mary and Martha, those friends of Jesus that are part of John’s Gospel a few times. Here, the rubber meets the road in their faith. Here, like so many of us, they have something tragic happen in their lives, and now they have to grapple with whether their faith helps them with that or not. Mary is so troubled that she doesn’t even go out to meet the Lord until her sister tells her a white lie that Jesus was asking for her. Both she and Martha, when they first see Jesus, complain that he should have come sooner so that he could have saved Lazarus. But Martha has a little faith. She says very importantly that “Even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” That’s the beginning profession of faith. She knows that Jesus has power over life and death. So then they have a little catechesis about life and death and eternity, and at the end of it, Martha professes that Jesus is the Son of God who was coming into the world. The sisters move from their grief, to faith in Jesus, even before he accomplishes the miracle.

The second group of catechumens is the Apostles. God bless them, they’re still trying to make sense of Jesus. We can’t be too hard on them, because they’re a lot like many of us who are trying to be men and women of faith, but don’t really have all the facts right now. “Let us also go to die with him,” Thomas says. And they will, of course: they have to go through the cross before they see and understand Jesus fully. We too will have to take up our own crosses before we can understand the salvation that Christ has won for us.

The third group of catechumens is the Jews. A bunch of them are weeping with Mary, and they go with her to see Jesus. Along the way, they complain that if he could heal the man born blind like he did in last week’s Gospel, why couldn’t he have healed Lazarus? But seeing the miracle, they come to believe, in the very last verse of this long reading. They are a lot like those of us who are skeptical for a long time, but see something wonderful materialize in the life of another and finally decide there’s something to this Jesus that’s worth believing in.

But key to all of these catechumens is that, in order to move to belief, they had to have some kind of stench in their lives washed away. For Martha and Mary, they had to see past their grief. For the Apostles, they had to get over themselves and realize that Jesus was in charge. For the Jews, they had to get past their skepticism and let him perform miracles among them. For all of us, on the journey of faith, some kind of stench has to be washed away, in order to come to full faith in Jesus. And that stench is, of course, sin. The way it gets washed away is in baptism.

This reading is all about baptism, brothers and sisters in Christ. Is it a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection, well maybe a little. But it is more about baptism. Because baptism is a kind of death. As Saint Paul says this morning, baptism is the kind of death that gives life to our mortal bodies. It’s hard for us to imagine that kind of thing when the baptisms we’ve seen are just a mere pouring of water over a baby’s head. But baptism in the early church was full submerging in water while the formula was pronounced, after which they came up out of the water gasping for air. Believe me, they got the connection of baptism with death and resurrection!

Baptism is what washes away the stench in our lives. It does that with original sin, and if we live our baptism by participating in the sacraments, it does that with the sins of our daily life. The sacrament of Penance is an extension in a way of the sacrament of Baptism, in which the sins of our lives are completely washed away, leaving us made new and alive in ways we couldn’t imagine.

So today, Jesus sees us dead in the flesh, stinking of our sins. But he calls us forth in baptism, rolling away the stone of sin that keeps us from relationship with him, releasing us from the burial-bands that bind us, and calling us to new life.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

Some days, I think there isn’t much I would do for just five minutes of peace and quiet.

If you’re a parent, maybe you’d amend that to longing for just five seconds of peace and quiet!  We are all probably sadly familiar with the many loud distractions our world puts before us.  And we’ve become conditioned to accepting it, even needing it on some primitive level, I think.  I’ve been to many a parish meeting where, when we are praying, someone jumps in to fill a moment of silence, when silence would have been good for all of us.  And don’t we often get out of bed and flip on the radio or television right away, or check our text messages or email before our feet even hit the floor?  I know I’m guilty of that.  There’s a whole lot of noise out there and it’s become so that we are very uncomfortable with any kind of quiet.

And the noise doesn’t lead us anywhere good.  The Psalmist talks about walking through death’s dark valley.  I think some of the noise out there resembles that dark valley pretty closely.  There are voices out there tempting us to all sorts of evil places: addictions, selfishness; pursuit of wealth, prestige, or power.  Those same voices call us to turn away from the needy, from family, God and the Church.  Those same voices tell us that we are doing just fine on our own, that we don’t need anyone else to make us whole, that we are good enough to accomplish anything worthwhile all by ourselves.  And those voices are wrong, dead wrong.

Those are the voices of those Jesus mentions in the Gospel who circumvent the gate and come to “steal and slaughter and destroy.”  The frightening thing is, we have become so used to these distracting voices that we have turned away from God, turned away from the Savior we so desperately need, and have been led astray.  That’s the heart of why our pews aren’t filled, why people call themselves “spiritual but not religious”, why the likes of Oprah and Doctor Phil have become so popular in this day and age.

So maybe we have to become a little more like sheep.  And I don’t mean that in the sense of cultivating blind obedience.  Because, as it turns out, sheep aren’t as dumb as we often think of them.  Here’s the backstory on today’s Gospel image of the sheep, the shepherd, and the sheepfold:  In Jesus’ day, the shepherds would gather several flocks in the same fenced-enclosure. The sheepfold might be constructed in a pasture using brush and sticks; or, it would adjoin a wall of a house and have makeshift walls for the other sides. Owners of small flocks of sheep would have combined them in the secure enclosure at night.  Someone – the gatekeeper – would then guard the flocks. The “gate” would have been a simple entrance, but the gatekeeper might even stretch out across the opening and literally be the “gate.” The shepherds would arrive early in the morning and be admitted by the gatekeeper. They would call out to their sheep and the members of the flock recognize the voice of their own shepherd, and that shepherd would “lead them out.”  The shepherd then walks in front of the flock and they follow. (Jude Sicilliano, OP)

We, like the sheep, have to cultivate the silence and the ability to hear our shepherd’s voice and follow him, being led to green pastures, and not be distracted by all the noise out there.  As we rediscovered during Lent, we are a people in great need of a Savior, of the Good Shepherd.  We desperately need the guidance of the one who leads us to eternity, laying down his own life to keep us out of the eternal clutches of sin and death.  Jesus came into this world and gave himself so that we might “have life and have it more abundantly.”

Here’s a way to pray with this in the coming week.  Take five minutes, or even just five seconds if that’s all you can find, and consciously turn off the noise: whether it’s the physical noise of the television or radio, or the internal noise of distractions in your head.  And then reflect on what voices are out there distracting you from hearing  the voice of your Good Shepherd.  Ask the Good Shepherd to help you tune them out so that you can more readily discern his voice and follow the right path.