The Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

I often wonder how people get through the hard times of their lives if they don’t have faith.  We can all probably think of a time in our lives when we were sorely tested, when our lives were turned upside-down, and, looking back, we can’t figure out how we lived through it except for the grace of our faith.  During the course of my priesthood, I have been present to a lot of people who were going through times like that: whether it be illness or death of a loved one, relationship struggles, job issues, or financial struggles, or a host of other maladies.  Some of them had faith, and some who didn’t.  It was always inspirational to see how people with faith lived through their hard times, and very sad to see how many who didn’t have faith just broken when their lives stopped going well.

That’s the experience that today’s Liturgy of the Word puts before us, I think.  Let’s look at the context.  In last week’s Gospel, Jesus has cured two people miraculously.  He actually raised Jairus’s twelve-year-old daughter from the dead, and he cured the hemorrhagic woman, who had been suffering for twelve years.  So both stories had occurrences of the number twelve, reminiscent of the twelve tribes of Abraham, and later the Twelve Apostles, both of which signify the outreach of God’s presence into the whole world.  So those two miraculous healings last week reminded us that Jesus was healing the whole world.

But this week, we see the exception.  This week, Jesus is in his hometown, where he is unable to do much in the way of miracles except for a few minor healings.  Why?  Because the people lacked faith.  And this is in stark contrast to last week’s healings where Jairus handed his daughter over to Jesus in faith, and the hemorrhagic woman had faith that just grasping on to the garments of Jesus would give her healing.  Faith can be very healing, and a lack of it can be stifling, leading eventually to the destruction of life.

We see that clearly in the first two readings.  First Ezekiel is told that the people he would be ministering to would not change, because they were obstinate.  But at least they’d know a prophet had been among them.  Contrast that with Saint Paul’s unyielding faith in the second reading to the Corinthian Church.  Even though he begged the Lord three times to relieve him of whatever it was that was his thorn in the flesh, he would not stop believing in God’s goodness.  Much has been said about what Saint Paul could possibly mean by this “thorn.”  Was it an illness or infirmity?  Was it a pattern of sin or at least a temptation that would not leave him alone?  We don’t know for sure, but this “thorn” makes Saint Paul’s story all the more compelling for us who have to deal with our own “thorns” in our own lives.  Saint Paul’s faith led him to be content with whatever weakness or hardship befell him, and he came to know that in his weakness, God could do more and thus make him stronger than he could be on his own. That assurance gives us hope of the same grace in our own struggles.

We people of faith will be tested sometimes; that’s when the rubber hits the road for our faith.  Knowing of God’s providence, we can be sure that he will lead us to whatever is best.  And our faith can help us to make sense of the struggles and know God’s presence in the dark places of our lives.  People of faith are tested by the storms and tempests of the world, but are never abandoned by our God.  Never abandoned.

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion

Today’s readings

Today, and throughout this Holy Week, we have in our Liturgy a stark reminder that the hope that we have in the Resurrection was purchased at a great price. Our world today would prefer to ignore the cross. And with good reason. Because the cross is embarrassing. Until Christianity, no religion worth its salt would base itself on a God who suffered an ignoble death that was reserved for the most obstinate of criminals. And even now, you know, we’d rather not dwell on that kind of pain, would we? We live in an age where there is a pill for every minor affliction and a treatment for every discomfort. In and of itself, this is not a bad thing, but then we can often take it farther and find ways to mask any pain, physical or psychological, that comes our way, and this is not healthy.

The Cross is an in-your-face reminder that pain is part and parcel of our life of salvation. Jesus did not come to take away our pain, he came to redeem it. Not only that, he came to take it on himself. Far from being embarrassed by our sin and pain, Jesus took it to the cross, redeeming our brokenness, and leaving us an everlasting promise that there is no pain too great for our God to bear and there is no way we can ever fall so far that our God can’t reach us. We may think our pain and our sin is embarrassing, but Jesus left none of that behind on the way to the cross. He took our every hurt, our every pain, our every sin, our every shame, our every resentment, our every emptiness, and left them all there at the foot of the cross.

And so today’s Liturgy brings us to the place to which we have been journeying this Lent, namely the cross. I think the Psalmist today captures the feeling of our hearts as we arrive here: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

And haven’t we all asked that question at least once in our lives? As we sing those words, they can quite frankly bring back painful memories, whether they be memories of past hurts, or reflections of current ones. Maybe it’s the time when you were sexually abused and felt abandoned because you were convinced no one would believe you. Maybe it’s the time you received a frightening diagnosis and you felt abandoned because you couldn’t enter into daily life with the same carefree attitude you previously had. Maybe it’s the occasion of the death of a loved one and you felt abandoned because everyone on the planet seemed joyful, except you. Maybe it’s the time you were laid off from your job and you felt abandoned because it seemed that no one valued your skills and talents.

We’d rather not be here at the cross, would we?  But this week reminds us that without the cross, there is no resurrection. Not for Jesus, and so also, not for us. Jesus certainly had his moment in the Garden of Gethsemane when the knowledge of his impending death filled him with dread; and so it will be for us, countless times when we are called on to take up the cross. But as we enter this Holy Week, we are reminded gently that the cross, while significant, is not the end of the story. Yes, we have to suffer our own Good Fridays; but we confidently remember that we also get an Easter Sunday.  And that is what gives us all the confidence to take up our cross and journey on.

These are not ordinary days – they are not for business as usual.  I invite you all to enter into these Holy Days with passion, with prayerfulness and in faith. Gather with us on Holy Thursday at 7:30pm to celebrate the giving of the Eucharist and the Priesthood, and the call to service that comes from our baptism. On Good Friday at 3:00 in the afternoon, we will have the opportunity once again to reflect on the Passion, to venerate the cross that won our salvation, and to receive the Eucharist, which is our strength. Finally, at 8:00 on Holy Saturday night, we will gather here in a darkened church to keep vigil for the resurrection we have been promised. We will hear stories of our salvation, we will celebrate our baptism as we welcome new members to our family, seeing them fully initiated into the life of the Church, rejoicing with them in the victory of Christ over sin and death. No Catholic should ever miss the celebrations of these Holy Days, for these days truly sustain our daily living and give us the grace to take up our little crosses day by day.

The Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed (All Souls)

Today’s readings

It’s been a couple of years now since Dad died, but I still miss him all the time.  Yes, with time, the grief has subsided a bit, and the days are a little easier.  But the memories, great memories, are still there, and the absence of my father still leaves a hole in my heart.

But that’s okay.  That’s how grief works.  It might seem sometimes like it would have been better to live without love, but we know deep down that that’s not true.  Sadness and even death are temporary; love is eternal.  As the Church’s vigil for the deceased tells us, “all the ties of friendship and affection which knit us as one throughout our lives do not unravel with death.” We know that death only separates us for a short time, and even though there is that hole in our heart, the sadness that we feel is way better than never having loved at all, never having had our loved ones in our lives at all.

Today, the Church gives us the grace of remembering all of our loved ones who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith, and all the dead whose faith is known to God alone.  The Church is great in wisdom in giving us this feast every year.  Because even though on this day, we might shed a few tears, still we will have the grace of remembering the ones who have given us life, given us wisdom, those who have been Christ to us, those who have made God’s love tangibly present in our lives.

Even if the memories aren’t the best, and even if we struggle with the pain of past hurts mixed with the sorrow of grief, there is grace in remembering today.  Maybe this day can be an occasion of healing, even if it’s just a little bit.  Maybe our tears, mixed with the saving Blood of Christ, can wash and purify our wounded hearts and sorrowful souls.

And I know it won’t all go away today.  We are left with tears and loneliness, and that empty place at the table, and that hole in our heart. But sadness and pain absolutely do not last forever, because death and sin have been ultimately defeated by the Blood of Christ. We can hope in the day that our hearts will be healed, and we will be reunited with our loved ones forever, with all of our hurts healed and relationships purified, in the kingdom that knows no end. The Eucharistic Prayer itself will tell us today that there will come a day when “every tear will be wiped away. On that day, we shall see you, our God, as you are. We shall become like you and praise you for ever through Christ our Lord, from whom all good things come.”

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

The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed

Today’s readings: Isaiah 25:6-9; I Corinthians 15:51-57; John 6:37-40

This past Sunday and Monday, I took a couple of days off.  I packed up early on Sunday and was out of the house by 6am, and took a 3 hour and 45 minute drive to see a friend, one of my classmates from seminary, who is a priest in the diocese of Springfield.  I visited with him all of Sunday and on Monday morning, then packed up just before noon and returned home.

I mention this because the trip itself was a bit unusual for me.  Usually, I’ll play the radio or my iPod in the car the whole way down, but for most of the trip this time, I traveled in silence.  I did that because I was aware that I was missing my dad in a special way.  He died a year ago in May, and I’ve been missing him a lot.  But I think I was missing him in a special way on this trip because Dad was great for road trips.  He’d get up before the crack of dawn, which is what I did, and he’d motor on toward whatever our destination was.  He loved to drive even long distances, and especially when I was a kid, the trip was kind of filled with expectation.  It wasn’t always fun getting up so early to leave, but it was kind of cool because it was a different experience, and as a kid, who could sleep the night before vacation anyway?

So many wonderful things continue to remind me of Dad.  I was sitting on the new deck at Mom’s house a couple of weeks ago.  We had intended Dad to sit out and enjoy the deck that summer, but he died just a few days before it could be completed.  He would have loved it; he always liked sitting outside and enjoying the neighborhood and his house.  So as I sat there on that deck and prayed my breviary, I found myself especially close to Dad.

As I’ve experienced these things over the last several weeks, I’ve been aware of my sense of loss t hat doesn’t ever seem to completely go away.  In some ways, that’s a good thing, because it reminds me how much I have loved and how much I was loved.  And through all of it, I have felt the abiding presence of God who is with us in all of our joys, and all of our sorrows.  I really feel like the danger of grieving is so miniscule compared with the danger of never having loved in our lives.

I’ve reflected on my experience of grief this past week.  I was with some of my priest friends who form a kind of support group for each other earlier in the week.  We were praying about this feast of All Souls, and talking about our experience of loss and grief.  I shared what came to me in that moment, and that was a profound sense of gratitude to my parents for having given me the opportunity to learn to grieve when I was little.  I remember when my grandfather, Mom’s Dad, was close to death.  Mom and Dad talked with me about what was going to happen, and we all cried and hugged, and I began the strange feeling of grief when I was just nine years old.  When the time came, as is the custom on both sides of our family, all of us went to the wake and funeral, little as we were.

Some people try to shield their children from that experience.  Indeed, our overly medicated society tries to protect us all from that experience of grief, white-washing it and moving on just as soon as possible.  But how grateful I am that my parents didn’t do that to me.  Through that experience, I learned to love more deeply, not less.  I learned that the people in my life are signs to me of God’s love and presence in my life.  I learned that grieving is part of life, that it’s natural, that it’s something we all experience, that it’s a sign of God’s love.  We have to learn to grieve, as soon as we have the opportunity, and not to be afraid of it, because grieving is a way that we remember and love and heal and grow.

Grief and loss can do a number of things to us, and that is what makes it so scary.  Some people can become fixated in their grief and can be taken by a kind of clinical depression.  For that, we must count on the expert assistance of counselors and therapists who can help us through the root causes of depression and help us to experience our grief in healthier ways.  But that doesn’t mean that everyone who experiences loss should be medicated or is even ill.  If you’re moving through grief and continue to be aware of the gifts of your relationship with those you have lost, and continue to know that God is present with you even in your pain, then you’re probably grieving in healthy ways.  But if you’re lost and have lost sight of God’s love, then you might need to speak with someone about your grief.

Jesus said in the Beatitudes “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  What makes this a particularly outrageous statement is that in biblical language, the word “blessed” here means “happy.”  So how is it that mourners are actually happy?  And the answer to that is that mourners have the wonderful experience of God’s presence in their grief.  When we grieve, we are especially close to God, close to our God who grieves when we are hurt, who may allow the bad things that happen in our lives, but never wills them, whose heart breaks whenever we sin and turn away from him.  We are made in the image and likeness of our God who is no stranger to grief, especially in the person of Jesus Christ, who grieved at the death of his friend Lazarus, who grieved with those he ministered to, and whose heart was broken when he saw the sadness of his mother at the foot of the cross.  Our God accepts grief head-on, and so should we, aware that in our grieving we are closer to God than ever, and have the benefit of his abiding presence in our pain.

On this feast of the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, I could reflect on the difference between All Saints Day and All Souls Day.  But you could read that in the bulletin.  I could tell you all about purgatory and the need for us to pray for the dead.  But there’s another time and place for that too, I think.  Instead, 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.

Death is always a time of great sadness, but our Liturgy teaches us that we who believe in the Lord Jesus must never grieve as if we have no hope.  Our hope is always in Christ, the one who knows our grief and pain, and is with us in every moment of our lives, most especially when we are in pain.  The Church teaches us that if we believe in God and do his will, we can be reunited with all of our loved ones forever one day.  For the believer, the hopelessness of death is always overcome by the great hope of God’s grace.

We will hear later in this Liturgy that for those who believe in Christ, life is changed, not ended.  Because Jesus has died and risen from the dead to pay the price for our sins, we have been given the great gift of salvation.  And so 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 Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Today’s readings

Chicago priest and theologian Robert Barron speaks of what he calls a “beige” Catholicism. This is how he describes the Church during the years following the second Vatican Council. It was a time, he says, when “Christianity’s distinctive qualities and bright colors tended to be muted and its rough edges smoothed, while points of contact and continuity with non-Christian and secular realms were consistently brought into the light and celebrated.” Now, to be fair, Vatican II did indeed rightly bring to light the points of contact we have with our protestant brothers and sisters, and even our non-Christian friends. We do, in fact, have some things in common. But the downside of this emphasis was this kind of “beige” or blasé religion which challenged no one. “As a result,” Barron says, “the Christianity into which I was initiated was relatively bland and domesticated, easy to grasp and unthreatening.

So what we were left with was a Catholicism in which one could come and go, there were no demands made of anyone so that they didn’t feel bad, and everyone was welcome to gather around and sing “Kumbaya.” And there may be a time and a place for all that, but it’s not what our religion is ultimately about.

And so we have today this relatively strange feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, sometimes called the Triumph of the Cross. This feast enters into our Liturgical year and rips us from our complacency to gaze on the awful, disfigured body of our Lord, writhing in pain, nailed to the cross. There is nothing beige about this moment. We are forced to look at this horrible scene and try to figure out how it can ever be glorious. What is exultant or triumphant about such a horrible, painful, humiliating death?

Now, to be fair, we have looked at the cross so many times in our lives that it may no longer be shocking to us. But in order to recapture the significance of this feast, indeed in order to recapture the significance of our faith, we must look once again at the cross and be repulsed. The book of Lamentations is a wonderful invitation to the cross: “Come, all you who pass by the way, look and see whether there is any suffering like my suffering, which has been dealt me when the LORD afflicted me on the day of his blazing wrath.” (Lamentations 1:12) If the thought of our God nailed to a cross and suffering an agony that can only be relieved by death doesn’t evoke strong feelings in us, then we cannot possibly ever come to a true acceptance of our faith.

What we should see on that cross is that our faith is not so much about our quest for God as much as it is about God’s relentless quest for us. As Fr. Barron says, his quest for us is a quest even to the point of death. And that’s the triumph we see on that horrible cross. The truth is that our God simply loves us too much to let sin and death have any kind of permanent hold on us. So he sent his only Son into our world to walk among us, to live our life and bear our temptations and frustrations, and to die our death in the most horrible and shocking way possible so that we could be relieved of the burden of our sins and come at last to everlasting life.

That’s the message of today’s Gospel. That one verse, John 3:16, which we see on placards and posters at so many sporting events, has been called the “Gospel in miniature.” “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, so that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.” And sadly, we can get pretty bland about that too. We can accept the fact that our believing brings us to eternal life to the point that we never give it a second thought. But the cross makes that kind of beige faith impossible. It shows us that the eternal life of our expectation came at a price; a horrible, painful, humiliating price.

We are an Easter people who dwell, as well we should, on the Resurrection of our Lord. But we must not ever forget that the Resurrection would never have been possible without the Cross. Without the Resurrection, the cross is definitely that awful reminder of a meaningless death. But without the Cross, the Resurrection would never be the joyful relief that it is. We are never a Church that is about just one thing. We are always about Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Which is good news for us because, as I’m sure you can tell me, every day of our lives isn’t Easter Sunday. We experience all sorts of death: the very real death of a loved one, failures of all sorts, sickness and infirmity, broken relationships, disappointments and frustrations – all of these are deaths that we must suffer at one point or another in our life. No life is untouched by hardship at some point. This feast, though, reminds us that God’s love can embrace all of that death, take it to the cross and rise up over it. Our life’s pain is not the end for any of us; those who believe in Christ can have eternal life, as John the evangelist eagerly reminds us today.

And so, as much painful as it is to look with horror on the cross today, our eyes of faith can also see great beauty, exaltation and triumph. But we have to see both things. If we cannot bear to walk through the pain of the Cross, we’ll never get to the joy of the Resurrection – it’s both or nothing.

So this feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross has us seeing anything but beige. Instead we see the black darkness of sin and death, the red blood of Christ shed for that sin, and the gold glory of the Resurrection. This feast must find us bending the knee at the cross of Christ, and proclaiming with our lips that Jesus Christ is Lord – Lord of our pain and Lord of our triumph – to the glory of God the Father.