The Thirty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time: All Souls Remembrance Mass

Today’s readings

This morning’s Gospel reading presents us with perhaps thefoundational principal of living the Christian life: love of God and love of neighbor.  We love God with great fervor because he loved us into existence.  And God teaches us how to love: to love him and to love others; in fact we manifest our love of God in very real ways by loving others.  Loving others is what brings us here together this morning as we celebrate our annual Mass of Remembrance for those who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith.  Our love of them doesn’t end when they leave us; and it is that love that intensifies our grief.  And so we gather this morning to remember and to take solace in God’s love for us, knowing that the grave is no obstacle to love, and that death has been defeated by our Savior who loves us more than anything.

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 unfortunately 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 best 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 just doesn’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.

We come together today to pray for our deceased loved ones that they may be purified of any sin so that they can enter the kingdom of God.  Praying for the dead recognizes that all of our lives here on earth are not perfect, and the only way that we can attain the saving grace necessary for life in heaven is by turning to our Savior who gave his life for us.  Our second reading today gives us confidence that we can do this, and that his sacrifice on behalf of our loved ones, and of us, is sufficient, because his is a priesthood that never passes away.  He offered himself once for all, and that is enough, if we turn to him and ask his mercy.

In a few moments, I will sing words that have comforted me so many times in my sorrow.  They are the words of the preface to the Eucharistic Prayer: “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 who confidently proclaims: “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.  That is why he offered himself willingly for us.

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.

Therefore, it is with profound sadness, but also with ultimate trust in Almighty God that we commend our loved ones to the Lord, knowing that his mercy is great and that his love will keep us united at the Eucharistic banquet until that day when death is conquered and sadness is banished and we are all caught up in God’s life forever.

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 Twenty-ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

At the heart of today’s Gospel reading is the question of whether or not we as disciples of Jesus are willing to go where he’s leading us. Much could be said about the posturing of James and John to get the good seats in the kingdom. But their ambition is not the point here. The point, as Jesus illustrates, is that his kingdom is not one of honor and glory. His kingdom is about suffering and redemption, and then honor and glory. To get to the resurrection, you have to go through the cross. And the most honored one is the one who serves everyone else along the way. Let me illustrate with an admittedly somewhat unflattering story about yours truly.

When I was in seminary, there were a number of nice, fancy dinners that would follow important events in the school year. So we would have them after a class received ministries like Lector or Acolyte, or after Mass for a reunion of 25-year or 50-year jubilarians. At each of these dinners, the table would be set up very fancy, and there would be an apron draped over the back of one of the chairs at the table. The idea was, the person sitting in that seat would be expected to put on the apron and serve the others at the table.

When I first got to seminary, when it came time for these dinners, I would rush to get to the refectory so that I didn’t have to sit in that spot and serve the others. I know, not very pastor-like, was it? But one day, I reflected on those last two lines of today’s Gospel: For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. And in that moment, I realized that it was indeed service that I was called to do, and so maybe I could get started by serving my brothers at table.

From that day forward, things changed for me. I would still rush to get over to the refectory as soon as I could, but that was so that I could sit in that seat and serve the others. Not only did I take on the server role, but I actually found joy in it. When you let go of thinking only about yourself, you find that you can actually receive many blessings. The blessings I found were that those dinners were a lot more fun; I had some wonderful conversations not only with the people at my table, but also with the kitchen staff.

Jesus in our Gospel reading today is calling us all to sit in that seat at the table, to put on our aprons, and help serve everyone else. That flies in the face of our entitlement, it tears down the notion of looking out for number one, it means that inconvenience for the sake of others has to become a real option in our daily lives.

Jesus told us that whoever wishes to be great among us must be the servant of all. He washed the feet of his disciples on his last night on this earth; he died on that cross for all of us. We are called to follow his ways if we want to follow him to the kingdom. Let’s none of us be afraid of taking that seat at the table and putting on the apron.

Tuesday of the Eleventh Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel is one that’s certainly very familiar to us.  But if we’re honest, every time we hear it, it must give us a little bit of uneasiness, right?  Because, yes, it is very easy to love those who love us, to do good to those who do good to us, to greet those who greet us.  And we know that Jesus is right – he always is! – there is nothing special about loving those we know well, and we certainly look forward to greeting our friends and close family.

But that’s not what the Christian life is about.  We know that, but when we get a challenge like today’s Gospel, it hits a little close to home.  Because we all know people we’d rather not show kindness to, don’t we?  We all have that mental list of people who are annoying or who have wronged us or caused us pain.  And to have to greet them, do good to them, even love them, well that all seems too much some days.

And yet that is our call.  We’re held to a higher standard than those proverbial tax collectors and pagans that Jesus refers to.  We are people of the new covenant, people redeemed by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  And so we have to live as if we have been freed from our pettiness, because, in fact, we have.  We are told to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect.  That’s a tall order, but a simple kindness to one person we’d rather not be kind to is all it takes to make a step closer.

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

I don’t know if you were counting or not, but between the second reading and the Gospel, the word “love” was used in one form or another eighteen times.  So it’s pretty easy to see where the Church is leading us in today’s Liturgy of the Word.  Love is a theme that runs through John’s Gospel and the letters of Saint John: John’s point is that the Gospel is summed up in that God is love.

Now we get all kinds of notions about what love is and what it’s not.  Our culture feeds us mostly false notions, unfortunately, and it gets confusing because love can mean so many different things.  I can say, “cookies are my favorite food – I love cookies!” and that’s obviously 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 the sexual act.  And none of that is adequate to convey the kind of love that is the hallmark of Jesus’ disciples.

So I think we should look at the Greek word which is being translated “love” here.  That word is agape Agape is the love of God, or love that comes from God.  It is outwardly expressed in the person of Jesus Christ, who came to show the depth of God’s love by dying on the Cross to pay the price for our many sins.  So that’s the kind of love that Jesus is talking about today; it’s kind of a benchmark of love that he is putting out there for our consideration.

To really see what Jesus meant by love in today’s Gospel, all we have to do is to look at Jesus.  His command is that his disciples – including us, of course – should “Love one another as I have loved you.”  And the operative phrase there is: “as I have loved you.”   Meaning, “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.”  This sacrificial quality a vital property of agape love.

And the disciples clearly were called to that kind of sacrificial love.  They were persecuted, thrown out of the synagogues, beaten for stirring up trouble, put to death for their faith in Christ.  Like their Savior, they laid down their lives for their friends.  That is what disciples do.  And so, we disciples hear that same command too.   We may never be asked to literally die for those we love, but we are called on to die in little ways: to give up our own self-interests, our own selfishness, our own comforts, for the sake of others.

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 trashcan 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.  When we make the decision to do something little for the sake of love, the joy we find in that act can help us to make it a habit of life, so that those little things become even bigger.  That kind of loving transforms families, heals past hurts, and can even make our little corner of the world a more beautiful place.  The love of God, offered most perfectly in the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, transformed our eternity.  That same love of God, lived in each one of us, can be a catalyst for good in our world.

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 absolutely will be the greatest joy of our lives.

The Second Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings

What would you give up for love?

Today’s first reading puts poor Abraham in an awful position. Remember, he and Sarah were childless well into their old age. And it is only upon entering into relationship with God that that changes. God gives them a son, along with a promise, that he would be the father of many nations.

And so put yourself in Abraham’s place. After rejoicing in the son he never thought he’d have, God tells him: “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you.” It’s not a suggestion, it’s not an invitation, it’s an order. Abraham knows that it’s only because of the gift of God that he has Isaac to sacrifice in the first place. But many of you are parents: what would you do?

The reading omits a chunk in the middle that is perhaps the most poignant part. Abraham packs up his son, travels with some servants, and he and Isaac haul the wood and the torch up the mountain. Isaac asks him: “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” Can you even begin to imagine the anguish in poor Abraham’s heart? And yet he responds in faith: “My son, God will provide the sheep for the burnt offering.” Which, of course is true. God had provided Isaac, who was intended to be the sheep. But Abraham couldn’t have known that God would intervene.

We could get caught up in the injustice here and call God to task for asking such a horrible thing in the first place. Why would God test poor Abraham so? Why would he give him a son in his old age, only to take him away?  What purpose did that have? But we have to know that the purpose of the story is to illustrate that God does have salvation in mind. Yes, God would provide the lamb. It was never going to be Isaac; it’s not even the sheep caught up in the thicket – not really. We know that the sheep for the burnt offering is none other than God’s own Son, his only one, whom he loves. The story is ultimately about Jesus, and his death and resurrection are what’s really going on in today’s Liturgy of the Word.

But let’s also be clear: Abraham trusted God and was willing to give up the thing he’d probably die for – his own son. So what are we willing to give so that we can demonstrate – to ourselves if no one else – our trust in God’s ability to love us beyond all telling? For Lent, we’ve given up chocolate, or sweets, or even negative thinking or swearing. Maybe we’ve not done well with them, or maybe we have even given them up.  But we need to see in Abraham’s willingness that our sacrifices are important; they mean something.

Jesus goes up a mountain in today’s readings too – and he too sees that he is to become the sheep for the sacrifice – sooner rather than later. That was the meaning of the Law and the prophets of old, symbolized by Moses and Elijah. But knowing that, and knowing what’s at stake, he does not hesitate for a moment to go down the mountain and soldier on to that great sacrifice. He willingly gives his own life to be the sheep for the sacrifice, because leaving us in our sins was a price he was not willing to pay.

There are a lot of things out there for us that seem good. But the only supreme good is the life of heaven, and eternity with our God. Think of the thing that means everything to you: are you willing to sacrifice that to gain heaven? Are you willing to give everything for love of God?

Because, for you, for me, God did.

God did that for us.

The Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today I think our Scriptures call us to get love right.  Love is an important thing for Christians because we know that God is love, and that we are called to love.  But what we sometimes define love to be, and what we often settle for is so much less than what it’s supposed to be.

Let’s set this up quickly.  In our Gospel today, the Pharisees are at it again.  They saw that Jesus silenced the Sadducees, a rival party, and so they wanted to put him to the test yet again.  So they ask him a classic trick question: “Which commandment of the Law is the greatest?”  It’s a question that scholars of the law back then argued about all the time: there were 613 commandments in the Jewish law, so which of them was most important?  You can just imagine the arguments about it.  So they pose the question to Jesus, not so much to see where he stands on the subject, but rather so they could have something to hold against him.  That’s the whole point here.

But Jesus isn’t having any of it.  He boils all of the law and the prophets down to just two basic commandments: love the Lord your God with everything that you are, and then also love your neighbor as yourself.  And when you think about it, this is so common-sense.  If we love God and neighbor, there won’t be any room for sin or crime or war or anything else bad.  It’s so simple.  And yet so hard to do.

But it shouldn’t be that way: it shouldn’t have been hard for the Pharisees and it shouldn’t be hard for us either.  The Pharisees made up the strongest part of the religious establishment of the time.  They were so concerned about getting the law right, that they often missed the whole point of the law in the first place.  The law came from none other than God himself, and he gave it for the good of the people, but the Pharisees used it to keep people under their thumb, which was what they were trying to do to Jesus here.

And God is all about justice.  So if that’s how he wanted it, the law would indeed be very rigid.  But as we see from the small sample of the law we have in our first reading, God wanted justice to be tempered with mercy.  Sure, go ahead and take your neighbor’s cloak as collateral on a loan.  But you better give it back to him before sundown, because that’s all he has to keep him warm in the night.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to those of us who have learned that God is love.  God is love itself, and God cannot not love.  That’s what God does and who God is: he loves us into existence, loves us in repentance, loves us with mercy, and loves us to eternity.  God is love in the purest of all senses: that love which wills the good of the other as other.

So when Jesus boils the whole Judaic law down to two commandments, it’s not like he’s made it easy.  As I said; it is simple, but simple doesn’t always mean easy.  It means giving the person who just cut you off in traffic a break, because you don’t know what’s really going on in their life.  It means showing kindness to your family after a long day, even when they’re testing your patience.  It means finding ways to be charitable and help those less fortunate.  And, I’ll just say it, it means cutting yourself some slack when you mess up, even when you’ve just committed the sin you’ve been trying to stamp out of your life forever.  You have to love yourself if you are going to do what Jesus said: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

So in the quiet time of our worship today, perhaps after receiving Holy Communion, maybe our prayer could be “Help me, God, to love as you love.”  That’s a really appropriate prayer after Communion because in Holy Communion, we have just received Love itself, we have received our Jesus who laid down his life so that we would not be dead in our sins.  If anyone can teach us how to love, it’s Jesus.

The whole law and the prophets depends on love.  The way we live our lives needs to show that we depend on love too.

The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Today’s readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Most Holy Trinity: What is God like?

Today’s readings

There’s a little Christian Science church in the town where I grew up, on Main Street, just north of the downtown area.  They don’t anymore, but they used to list their upcoming sermon topic, followed by the line “All are welcome.”  Imagine my surprise when one day, the topic was going to be eternal punishment.  So the sign read: “Eternal Punishment.  All are welcome.”  Yeah, I had to drive around the block to make sure I read that right!

Usually though, the topics weren’t very specific.  So one time the topic was going to be “God.”  I thought that will either be the world’s longest sermon, or it won’t really come all that close to talking about God.  The problem with God as a topic is that you’re painting with a pretty wide brush: anything you say can be right, but it also might not even really finish the job.

I feel like today’s topic of the Most Holy Trinity has me faced with that same dilemma.  It takes a lot longer than I’m able to talk to really get that topic covered, and still we probably won’t understand it very well.  Our limited vocabulary just gets in the way.  But let’s see how far we can get.

There was a time when I got invited to speak to a religious education class about God.  I had the teacher ask them the week before to write down their questions about God so that I could help them with the things they really wondered about.  One of the questions, at first glance, seemed kind of a halfhearted effort to get an assignment done, until I really thought about it.  That question was, “What is God like?” and I think that young person was really onto something.

In the end, we can say a whole lot of things about what God is like, but again our vocabulary gets in the way.  We can say God is like goodness, and that would be right.  But not in the way we think of things or even people as good.  Because our view of goodness has to do with how useful it is, and God’s goodness goes way beyond that.  We can say that God is like beauty, and that too would be right.  But not in the way that the world views beauty, which is limited and selfish and sometimes objectifying.  God’s beauty goes far beyond what we could ever imagine.

But there is something we can say about what God is like that gets us a little closer to understanding the Most Holy Trinity, at least insofar as we can understand that holy mystery.  When I preach to the children in our school, I often tell them there is one thing that they have to know about God, and if they know it, they know a lot about what God is like.  And that one thing is that God loves you.  I tell them that’s so important that if they’re ever stumped on a religion test, they can write “God loves me” and it will be worth at least half credit.  The teachers love when I say that!

But even that is hard to understand, because God, who is love itself, his love goes beyond anything we can conceive of.  His love looks like what happened on that cross.  His love embraces us even in our ugliest moments.  His love is powerful enough to burn away all of our flaws and make us new creations in his image.  His love really, truly keeps the world in motion.

And our readings today tell us that love is a lot of what God is like.  The greeting I gave you at the beginning of Mass comes to us from the end of today’s second reading: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”  In that greeting, Saint Paul mentions every member of the Holy Trinity, “God” referring to God the Father.  And he describes that Trinity as a loving communion that fills us with grace.  Pretty awesome!  That’s echoed in our Gospel reading, in which the very famous line from John 3:16 tells us what God is about, and what the Gospel teaches about God: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”  God’s love wants us all to come to eternal life, and so he sent his only begotten Son to come and take the punishment for our sins, and in the process breaking the power of sin and death to control our eternity.  Memorize that line, friends.

Love is an apt description of the Holy Trinity, even for Saint Thomas Aquinas who famously described the Trinity in that way.  The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, and the Holy Spirit is that love between the Father and the Son.  For Aquinas, the Trinity is a loving relationship, and I think that’s helpful to us who exist in relationships.

Sometimes, we need God to be Father: correcting us, wanting the best for us, calling us to be who he meant us to be.  If we let him, the Father’s love burns away all the parts of us that are not praiseworthy and sets us ablaze to become new in his image.  Sometimes, though, we need God to be Son: a brother who picks us up when we have fallen far down, one who walks with us in the darkness of whatever is going on with us, one who leads us to the place where God’s love can encompass us.  And sometimes we need the Holy Spirit, whose love literally inspires us to be who we were meant to be, to live as new creations, and to desire nothing outside of God’s love.  We need God to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit in different ways at different times.  God doesn’t change: he’s always Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  But we change, needing him in different ways all through our life.

So to answer that student’s question, “What is God like?” is a challenge.  Because God looks different to us at different times in our lives.  It’s only after this life has brought us to the kingdom when we’ll really know what God is like, as we see him face to face.  So I think I’ll leave you with that question, brothers and sisters.  What is God like?  I imagine it depends on what’s going on in your life, what your prayer has been like, and what your hopes and dreams are.  But it’s a question we should often pause to consider.  So pray about it this week.  What is God like?

Thursday of the Ninth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

If you’ve ever been to one of our school Masses here at Notre Dame, you know that I’m almost always telling the children that God loves them.  I feel like that might be the most important thing we ever learn about God; and that if we learn it – really learn it – then it can get us to heaven.  And we see that today in our readings: love is very definitely the theme of today’s Liturgy of the Word.  This week we have been hearing readings from the book of Tobit, in which we have the only Scriptural appearance of Saint Raphael the archangel.  And today we hear about him entering the story, in the guise of the person of Azariah.  Tobit and Tobiah and all the rest don’t know he’s an angel yet, but that will become clear enough when the blessing of love wipes the cataracts away from Tobit’s eyes, and everything becomes clear to him.

And we know that it is love that can do all these things.  There’s a lot of sadness leading up to today’s first reading.  Tobit has contracted cataracts, and the doctors have only made it worse.  Sarah has had six potential husbands, all of whom have died on the wedding night.  But we will see that love will clear up old Tobit’s vision, and love will let Tobiah survive his wedding night.  Love can heal Tobit’s and Sarah’s broken hearts.  And love can reveal that the power of God works in all of our lives, in all of our hearts.

Sometimes we need an angel – literally a messenger of God – to come to know that.  During our lives, we can go through periods that are just awful and seem to be devoid of any joy.  But love won’t let that be the final answer for any of us.  Just as the angel Raphael took the form of Azaraiah and was a blessing to Tobiah and Sarah, so too there may be angels in our own lives, in the form of family or friends or caregivers that end the cycle of sadness in the same way that God’s blessing ended the cycle of death for Sarah’s husbands.

Tobiah and Sarah sang a song of praise to God and said “Amen, amen” before going to bed for the night.  They woke up the next morning to rejoice in God’s love in the same way that we can, if we will but realize that there is no commandment greater than the commandment to love God and one another.  Death cannot and will not ever win the battle over love.

Friday of the Third Week of Lent

Today’s readings

“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  That would be, the most reassuring thing we could hear from our Lord!  To know that you’re on the right track — that your thoughts and heart’s desires are in line with God’s will — that would be a wonderful thing to know.  And today’s Scriptures give us the roadmap for finding that reassurance.

Step one is repentance. The prophet Hosea wrote of Israel’s repentance.  Israel, as a nation, as we well know, had turned away from the God of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  They had turned to the false gods of their neighbors and had worshipped idols.  Hosea’s prophecy had been all about calling them back, urging them to return to the Lord who loved his people and yearned for them like a spurned lover.  In today’s first reading, Hosea prophecies the promise that God will accept back his wayward lover and will restore the people of Israel to his own loved possession.

Step two is to hear the voice of God.  “If only my people would hear me,” the Psalmist says, “and Israel walk in my ways, I would feed them with the best of wheat, and with honey from the rock I would fill them.”  God longs to fill his faithful people with everything that they need to sustain life and live their faith.  All we have to do is hear his voice, to follow his commands, and walk in his ways.  This hearing the voice of God requires a steadfast faithfulness that will not be enticed by strange gods or flashy idols.  There is a single-mindedness that is called for here: the faithful are called not to hear God as one voice among many, but to hear God alone.

And step three is love.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus famously boils the commandments down to two: love of God and love of neighbor.  Again, there is an underlying single-mindedness: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  Love of God and neighbor isn’t a third or fourth priority, if we ever get around to it.  Love is prime: love must the first inclination of the heart, thought of the mind, and action of life.

What does it take for us disciples to be not far from the Kingdom of God?  It takes a Lent of repentance, a desire to hear and meditate on God’s Word and his presence in our lives, and then to love like there was nothing else to do in the whole world.  Maybe we’re not there yet, all of us, as we approach our Easter joy.  But at this mid-point of Lent, maybe we can come a little closer by asking God for the desire to change our hearts.