Easter Tuesday

Today’s Readings

Letting go of things is harder than we can sometimes even admit.  I think that’s what was going on with Mary Magdalene.  And we are just like her: we want to hold on to things and people as they are, because what is familiar is so very comfortable to us.  I think sometimes that’s true regardless of whether the familiar is positive or negative.  So many times we hold on to whatever we have and refuse to let them go because it’s as if we’re afraid we’ll be giving away some piece of ourselves.  So then what happens is that we hang on to images of ourselves or other people in our life that are outdated, and stifle any room for growth.  We hang on to resentments or past hurts and never give any chance for healing.  We hang on to unhealthy relationships and never give ourselves a chance to break the cycle of pain they bring.  We hang on to bad work situations and miss following our true calling.

What Mary needed to hear from Jesus in today’s Gospel was that she had to stop hanging on to things as they were, and to allow God’s promise to be fully revealed.  The time for mourning was over, it was now time to rejoice and begin spreading the word that the Gospel was coming to its fruition.  She had to begin that by going and spreading the word to the other disciples.

We too, have to stop grieving our past hurts and resentments and outdated notions of the world, ourselves and our relationships so that God’s promise can be fully revealed in us.  The message of Easter joy means that we must begin that by spreading the news that Jesus is doing something new in us and in our world, and make sure that everyone knows about it. We can do that by examining our lives every day and reflecting on what God is doing in us and how we are responding to it.  This is the kind of daily reflection that will help us to let go of what is unhelpful and grasp firmly to that which will lead us to Christ.

As we continue to live lives of conversion like this, we too can proclaim with Mary Magdalene on this Easter day, and every day, “We have seen the Lord!”

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord

Today’s readings

And so it begins.  We who have been keeping Lent these forty days are coming to Lent’s fulfillment.  Over the course of this week, we will gather several times to mark the events that have won our salvation.  On Thursday, we will gather at 7pm to celebrate the Lord’s Supper: that night when he gave us the Eucharist and the priesthood so that he would be among us until the end of time.  On Friday, we will gather at 3pm to revisit the Lord’s Passion, to venerate the Cross which was the altar on which he sacrificed his life for ours.  And on Saturday, we will gather on the piazza at 8pm to recount the stories of our salvation and welcome the Resurrection, baptizing new believers into the faith, and rejoicing with all of the Church on that most holy night.  No Catholic should ever miss these incredible liturgies: they are in fact the reason we are a Church and they highlight our mission in the world.  If you struggle to find the meaning in life, these celebrations will help you on the way.

And we begin that on a seemingly triumphant note.  Jesus enters Jerusalem, the city of the center of the Jewish religion, the city he has been journeying toward throughout the gospel narrative, and he enters it to the adulation of throngs.  Cloaks are thrown down in the street, the people wave palms and chant “Hosanna.”  This is it, isn’t it?  It seems like Jesus’ message has finally been accepted, at least by the crowds who have long been yearning for a messiah to deliver them from foreign oppression.

Only that wasn’t the kind of salvation Jesus came to offer.  Instead, he preached forgiveness and mercy and real justice, and he healed people from the inside out.  He called people to repentance, to change their lives, to hear the gospel and to live it every day.  He denounced hypocrisy, and demanded that those who would call themselves religious reach out in love to the poor and those on the margins.  It wasn’t a message that was particularly welcome; it wasn’t the message they thought the messiah would bring.

And that’s what brings us to the one hundred and eighty degree turn we experience in today’s second gospel reading, the reading of our Lord’s Passion and death.  Enough of this, they say; the religious leaders must be right: he must be a demon, or at least a troublemaker.  Better that we put up with the likes of Barabbas.  As for this one, well, crucify him.

Who are we going to blame for this?  Whose fault is it that they crucified my Lord?  Is it the Jews, as many centuries of anti-Semitism would assert?  Was it the Romans, those foreign occupiers who sought only the advancement of their empire?  Was it the fickle crowds, content enough to marvel at Jesus when he fed the thousands, but abandoning him once his message was made clear?  Was it Peter, who couldn’t even keep his promise of standing by his friend for a few hours?  Was it the rest of the apostles, who scattered lest they be tacked up on a cross next to Jesus?  Was it Judas, who gave in to despair thinking he had it all wrong?  Was it the cowardly Herod and Pilate who were both manipulating the event in order to maintain their pathetic fiefdoms?  Who was it who put Jesus on that cross?

And the answer, as we well know, is that it’s none of those.  Because it’s my sins that led Jesus to the Way of the Cross.  It’s my sins that betrayed him; it’s my sins that have kept me from friendship with God.  And so he willingly gave his life that I might have life.  And you.

He gave himself for us.

The Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Suffering, Redemption and Glory

Today’s readings

The talk of mourning and death in today’s Liturgy of the Word reminds us of a couple of really important life principles. The first is that we will have to suffer and mourn in this life, because this life is riddled with sorrows. We saw that clearly in Orlando this past week, and the truth is we see it all the time on the streets of Chicago. The second life principle is that Jesus embraced suffering himself, and did not come to make it go away. And finally, suffering was something our Lord redeemed, changing it from a dead end to a path to glory. The Gospel today in particular addresses these principles.

The story begins with a lesson on who Jesus is. Our own self-identity is something many of us spend a lifetime trying to figure out. Our identity is important to us: it tells us how we fit into the social structure as well as what makes us unique from others. Until we really know who we are, we are very unlikely to accomplish anything of importance or even be comfortable in our own skin. And so when Jesus asks the disciples “Who do the crowds say that I am?” it is a question with which we all resonate on some level, at some time in our lives.

Now, I’m not suggesting Jesus was having an identity crisis, or even that his notion of who he is was developing. Clearly, his asking that question wasn’t so much for his own information or even to see where he was in the social structure of Israel, but he was nudging the disciples to come to an understanding about what was going on. Jesus knows who he is and why he is here, but it’s for us and for those first disciples to begin to see Jesus in deeper ways.

The answers the disciples give to that question are interesting. John the Baptist risen from the dead, Elijah returned from the whirlwind, or that one of the ancient prophets had arisen. Clearly he had no parallel on earth at the time; all their answers involved the return of someone from the dead or the beyond. The reason this is significant is because, at the time, the possibility of there being anything beyond death or any kind of resurrection was in great dispute. The Pharisees believed in a life after death, the Sadducees did not; that is the reason many of the Gospel stories show those two groups in opposition to each other.

But the real significant part of their answers lies in what is going on in the disciples’ minds as they answer Jesus. You can almost hear the excitement in their voices. They had been seeing Jesus healing diseases and casting out demons. Not only that, they had just returned from their own missionary journey in which Jesus gave them authority to do those same things. Clearly they were in the presence of a superstar, and his charisma was rubbing off on them. They were ready for the glory, and they will get it, but not in the way they’re expecting.

Now Jesus wants to dig a little deeper. “But who do you say that I am?” he asks them. Peter speaks for the disciples and gets the answer right the first time: “The Christ of God.” I think he answers that with deep reverence and awe, but unfortunately, he didn’t know the half of it.

Jesus affirms his correct answer, but then goes on to reveal what that means for him. Yes, he is the Christ of God, but the Christ isn’t what they had anticipated. This was not going to be simply some glory trip. The Christ would have to suffer, be rejected, be killed, and then … then be raised from the dead. And that whole being killed part is the sticking point, but it’s absolutely necessary, he can’t be raised from the dead if he isn’t killed; that’s not a step one can skip.

This all had to be pretty hard for them to digest. But it’s nothing compared to what Jesus reveals next. Those disciples who thought they were on the glory train could also expect to suffer:

If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.

We don’t get to skip a step either. We too will be called to the cross. If we want eternal life, we have to be willing to give up this life. There is no resurrection without a cross; there is no Easter Sunday without a Good Friday. Not for Jesus and not for his disciples, not even for you and me.

We know that suffering is part of life. We have experienced illness, injury, pain, loss of a job, death of a loved one, physical or psychological abuse – the list is long. Just in the past week, our nation has suffered so much loss. So often all this suffering seems pointless. We might even be tempted to quarrel with God: if God is loving, why to innocent people have to suffer, why do we have to suffer? Why can’t it be the guy who cuts us off in traffic while he’s drinking coffee with one hand and talking on a cell phone in the other?

The truth is, the justice of suffering is beyond us. We don’t know why bad things happen to good people. Suffering can often seem so capricious, so random, so devoid of meaning. And it is, if we let it be. You see, sometimes we just get it wrong. We sometimes think that Jesus came to take away suffering and we get mad when that’s not what happens. But if Jesus came to take away suffering, he certainly wouldn’t have had to go through it himself. He didn’t come to take away suffering, but to give meaning to it, to redeem it – to come to glory through it.

We can see in the cross that the path to glory and the path to life leads through suffering to redemption. There’s no way around it. The cross Jesus took up will be ours to take up daily if we wish to follow Jesus to eternal life. He is the Way: if we want to get to heaven we have to follow his path. Our own identity as disciples and followers of Christ is bound up in the ugliness of suffering and the agony of the cross.

That flies in the face of our culture that wants us to take a pill for every pain and medicate every burden. Jesus says today that that kind of thinking is simply losing our lives trying to save them. The rest of life passes us by while we are self-medicated beyond our pain. But, if we lose our life for the sake of Jesus, if we take up our crosses and follow him, if we bear our burdens and our sorrows and our pain and our brokenness, if we join our sufferings to the suffering of Christ on the cross, then we too can experience what he did: the glory of eternal life. That was the only hope of those first disciples, and it is our only hope too, fellow disciples of the Lord.

Thursday of the Second Week of Advent

Today’s readings

One of the amazing truths to ponder in this season of Advent is the nature of and reason for the Incarnation. Why did God choose to save the world by entering into it as a creature? Why did he assume our fickle, broken flesh in the lowliest form: an infant born to a poor family?

There is a theological principle that says something like “whatever was not assumed was not redeemed.” Christ had to assume, that is, take on all of our weaknesses, so that he would be able to redeem all of our brokenness. What great comfort it is that our Advent leads to the Birth of a Savior so wonderful in glory that the whole universe could not contain him, but also so intimately one of us that he bore all our sorrows and grief. It is amazing that God’s plan to save the world took shape by assuming our own form, even to the point of dying our death.

That’s what I thought about as I reflected on today’s first reading. Israel was pretty low and lacking in power, in the grand scheme of things. Almost every nation on earth was more powerful than them. Yet they were decidedly not unnoticed by God – indeed they were actually favored. God’s plan for salvation takes place among the weakness in all of us. God notices that weakness, takes it on and redeems it in glory.

That’s the good news today for all of us who suffer in whatever way. God notices our suffering, in the person of Jesus he bore that same suffering, and in the glory of the Paschal Mystery, he redeemed it. God may not wave a magic wand and make all of our problems go away, but he will never leave us alone in them.

And it all started with the Incarnation. The birth of one tiny child to a poor family, in the tiniest region of the lowliest nation on earth. God can do amazing things when we are incredibly weak.

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Today’s readings

In a lot of ways, this is a strange feast we are celebrating today. Think about it. This is the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which in Jesus’ day would have been as big an oxymoron as one could possibly imagine. It’s like us saying that we are going to celebrate the exaltation of a lethal injection chamber. There is nothing exalted about an instrument of execution: it’s tortuous, humiliating, and as dark as one can get.

So to get from that to where we are now is nothing short of a miracle. A miracle, of course, of the highest order! God used this instrument of punishment to remit the punishment we deserved for our sins. God used the epitome of darkness to bathe the world in unfathomable light.

And he didn’t have to. The cross is what we deserved for our many sins. Today’s first reading gives us just a glimpse into the problem. The Israelites, fresh from deliverance from slavery in Egypt, are making their way through the desert. Along the way, they pause to complain that God’s food, which he provided in the desert, wasn’t good enough for them. They had chosen slavery over deliverance; food that perishes over food that endures unto eternal life.

But we’re there too, right? We often choose the wrong kind of food, get off the path, and choose slavery to our vices and sins over new life in Christ. In fact it was because of all that that Jesus came to us in the first place. God noticed our brokenness and would not let us remain dead in sin. So to put an end to that cycle of sin and death, he sent his only Son to us to die on the cross, paying the price for our sins. But that death may no longer have power over us, he raised him up, cheating the cross and the evil one of their power, and exalting the Holy Cross to the instrument not of our death, but of our salvation.

Because of the Cross, all of our sadness has been overcome. Disease, pain, death, and sin – none of these have ultimate power over us. Just as Jesus suffered on that Cross, so we too may have to suffer in the trials that this life brings us. But Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven to prepare a place for us, a place where there will be no more sadness, death or pain, a place where we can live in the radiant light of God for all eternity. Because of the Cross, we have hope, a hope that can never be taken away.

The Cross is indeed a very strange way to save the world, but the triumph that came into the world through the One who suffered on the cross is immeasurable. As our Gospel reminds us today, all of this happened because God so loved the world.

We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.

Good Friday: Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion

Today’s readings

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

Last night, I talked about the cross, and how, while brutal and inconvenient and ugly, it is the way to salvation for all of us. We see that so poignantly on this Good Friday, when we remember the Lord’s Passion, we venerate his Cross, and we receive the gift of Holy Communion to sustain us in these somber days. Our Lord’s complete gift of self, his act of emptying out his will so that he could fully embody the will of the Father, this is our hope and our salvation, and it is only possible through the brutal, ugly Cross.

Our world hates the Cross. I talked a bit about that last night, too. We want instant gratification, and we don’t want to go through a lot of hassle to get it. We seek instant remedies to pain, quick ways to get rich, instant service at any establishment according to our whim. We don’t like to wait, we don’t like to endure pain, we don’t like to suffer in any way. But as St. Augustine once said, “God had one Son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering.”

Today we see that, taking up our crosses at our Lord’s command is going to involve suffering in this life. It did for Jesus, and so we have no right to assume that won’t be the case for us. Jesus never came into this world to take our suffering away; he came to redeem it. He’s not going to wave a magic wand and make your problems go away, but he will endure them with you, taking up the Cross with you, giving his life with you and for you. And most importantly, as we’ll see tomorrow night, he will redeem your suffering to eternal glory. That, dear ones, is the Paschal Mystery, and we absolutely have a share in it.

So think about your worst problem right now – call to mind whatever you may be suffering. Or call to mind the suffering of others: a loved one who is battling cancer, or a friend who is unemployed or underemployed. Perhaps call to mind those who are homeless, or those who go without much food every day, even while we dread keeping the Paschal Fast! Whether it is your suffering or the suffering of others, bring that to the cross as we venerate it shortly. And know – know – that that suffering does not go unnoticed by our God; that it never is willed for its own sake. And know that our Lord walks through it too, bringing it at last to its eternal redemption.

Suffering is the way to glory for all of us who take up our crosses to follow our Lord. Pope Saint John Paul II said it well: “There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us. There is no enemy that Christ has not already conquered. There is no cross to bear that Christ has not already borne for us, and does not now bear with us. And on the far side of every cross we find the newness of life in the Holy Spirit, that new life which will reach its fulfillment in the resurrection. This is our faith. This is our witness before the world.”

The Cross of Jesus is brutal, ugly and harsh. It embodies the horror of all our suffering. We might hate to look at it, hate to take it up, but there is no glory without it.

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection,
through whom we are saved and delivered.

The Twenty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This month we’ve been seeing a lot of one of my favorite characters in the Gospel, and that is Saint Peter.  Just three weeks ago, the Apostles were out in a boat, and Jesus came to them on the water.  Saint Peter asked our Lord to command him to come to him on the water, and he did, and we all know how that went.  Then last week, Jesus was quizzing the Apostles about who people said that he was.  Peter was the one who spoke up and professed that Jesus was the Christ, the coming Anointed One, and Jesus proclaimed Peter the Rock on which he would build the Church.

And here we are today, just a couple of verses later in Matthew’s Gospel, and Peter steps in it yet again.  Because Peter was still clinging to the old notions of what the Messiah would be, he could not fathom that Jesus would have to suffer and die.  And so Jesus chastises him for thinking not as God does, but as people do.  It’s a mistake we all make time and again in our spiritual lives.

Peter’s faith journey was like that: up one minute, and down the next.  One minute he’s walking on water, the next he’s drowning; one minute he speaks eloquently of his Lord, and the next he’s the voice of temptation.  So maybe it seems like Saint Peter, flawed as he was, was an inappropriate choice to be the pillar of the Church, the first of the Popes.  But our Lord never makes any mistakes.  He chooses who he chooses for a reason, and I think that’s what we have to spend some time looking at today.

If Peter was unqualified for the position to which he was called – and he clearly was – then we have to expect to be unqualified for the roles to which we have been called.  Parents often feel that when they start to raise their first child.  Priests feel that every time they witness something incredible – which is almost all the time.  We are all unqualified, but God sees more in us, he sees our heart, he sees who he created us to be, and he won’t rest until we’ve fulfilled that potential.

If Peter made some mistakes along his journey of faith and discipleship – and he clearly did – then we have to expect to make mistakes in our own faith journey.  One minute we’ll have a glimpse of God and we’ll feel like we could never let him down, then the next minute we’ll fall into sin, maybe a sin we’ve been struggling with for so long, and we’ll feel like God couldn’t love us.  But he loved Peter, and he loves us.  He pulled Saint Peter out of the stormy waves, and he will reach out and pull us out of our own storms of failure, as often as we cry out.

The one thing you can’t fault Saint Peter for is his courage.  Eleven other guys stayed in the boat, but Peter wanted to be where our Lord was: out on the water.  Eleven other guys kept their mouth shut when Jesus asked who they said he was, but Peter did his best to make a profession of faith.  His life wasn’t perfect, his discipleship wasn’t perfect, his faith had a long way to go, but he knew that he couldn’t leave our Lord forever.  Even when he blows it in the hours before Jesus died and denies our Lord three times, he accepts our Lord’s forgiveness and fulfills the role Jesus gave him in last week’s Gospel.

Saint Peter’s story kept evolving, and ours isn’t done yet either.  Our Lord loved Saint Peter and he loves us too.  And that’s all it takes for great things to happen.