Homilies-3rd Series (2018-2020)
We used to hear “The pen is mightier than the sword,” back in the old days when words appeared mostly in newspapers and books. Today most words appear in electronic form and the might of words has become an endless battle between opinions and ideas on the Internet. We consider not only the might of these words but also their capacity for manipulation and even deceit. Nevertheless, as our first reading reminds us, words do transform things, nothing more so than the Word of God.
If we asked a lot of folks about God’ Word, we’d get different responses. Some religious groups provide enormous resources to help their adherents read the Bible. Many Catholics, on the other hand, find it difficult to remember where their Bible might be in their house. That is why today’s Gospel reading, about the Sower and the Seed, provides us an opportunity to reflect on God’s Word in our life.
We come to church or, these days, watch Mass online. Over half the time we spend at Mass is devoted to the Word of God. Sunday by Sunday we hear God’s word addressed to us. This can be so routine that many of us don’t realize its power or its effect on our lives. Every single Sunday the Gospel is calling us to conversion, to commitment, to deeper discipleship. As we hear these words together, we are saying that, as a community, we hold ourselves accountable for them. In front of each other we are saying that we know we need to live the Gospel we are hearing.
The parable we hear about the Sower can be easy to misunderstand. We can conclude that, whatever God does, our destinies are fixed, that we are rocky soil, or thorn-filled soul, or just a roadway. But obviously the parable is not saying this. Rather, the parable is calling all of us to ask how we have let that Word of God into our hearts, and how we are letting that Word transform us.
Indeed, that Word is powerful enough to penetrate the rockiness of our hearts, or the shallowness of our vision, or the distractions and temptations that beset us. Indeed, rather than just lying inert on the ground, the seed of God’s life penetrates us, empowering us to accomplish its good in our everyday lives. Indeed, God’s Word wants to bear fruit in us—thirty, sixty, or even a hundred-fold.
Consider, for example, the powerful message from the second reading, from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul offers us a stunning image, that of groaning. He applies this image to dimensions of our personal lives because he knows the suffering all of us go through. But he also applies it to creation itself, inviting us to see every moment of our existence as a step toward that ultimate birth when we come to the fullness of life.
Cannot you and I reflect on the sufferings of our lives, on the great pain in our nation, on the great struggles of our world—can we not see these in a new light, as a way in which we are invited to grow in hope, to believe in God’s future for us even though we go through difficulties? God sows this word in us to give us a new vision of ourselves and our world.
Some words are mightier than other words. But all the words we use come and go. The Word of God, springing from God’s infinite love, is the last word, the most powerful word, the word that abides. We pray for the grace not only to hear it, but, most especially, to live it.
It’s a laid-back Fourth of July. Even now we’re not sure who gathers, how they gather, what the displays will be like, how various celebrities will be present. We gather without the swagger that usually accompanies our national celebrations, chastened by a disease that has crippled us, and demonstrations that point out embarrassing flaws in how we live out our American philosophy.
So maybe we are in a better position to hear the message of Jesus in the Gospel. “Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” Humble of heart is not the way we think of ourselves as citizens. Not only are we all equal, or at least supposed to be equal, but we define ourselves by our proud achievements—defeating the British twice, conquering the Confederacy, humiliating the Spanish, winning the “war to end all wars,” until we had to win another one twenty years later. About recent wars, where it’s hard to swagger, we kind of obscure in our discourse. We still think of ourselves as the richest, most powerful country—in all of human history.
But what does Jesus mean by being “meek and humble of heart”? We can understand this by looking at the phrase “take my yoke upon you.” To be yoked to someone is to work alongside, to be part of their work and efforts, to share their vision. In order to understand how Jesus is meek and humble, we have to see what his vision was and how we are joined to it.
In this passage, Jesus is receiving his disciples whom he sent out earlier to proclaim his Kingdom and to heal the pains and burdens of the people. Just as Jesus came as a servant, so he sends his disciples to be servants too. Jesus shows his disciples that there’s a power in humble service; the same power is available for us as well. In the first reading, from one of the last prophets in Israel, when the Jewish people had not seen kings for hundreds of years, Zechariah envisions a king who comes to rule without any of the displays of power—horses, swords, chariots—but only with the promise of peace.
You and I know the power of humble service, for nothing brings parents closer to their children than the opportunity to care for them, even in the most menial ways. Nothing motivates public servants more than just be of help to others; we see what happens when public servants don’t act that way. People go to poor countries to serve the population; they come back transformed. A prophet like Martin Luther King Jr. stands before us—and we all know the power of his words more than 50 years after his death.
Paul contrasts those who live by the Spirit and those who do not. To live by the Spirit is to live totally focused on God and the power that comes into our lives because of that. To live by the flesh is to rely on the arrogant illusion that “I can fix this by myself. I am strong and resourceful.” Many things we can fix, but the deepest problems need the resolution that can only come from God.
Like the disciples, we are all sent out. Every week Jesus sends us forth, strengthened by his Word and nourished by his Flesh. We have yoked ourselves to Christ. He sends us forth to walk in that deepest assurance that comes not from arrogance but from an attitude of humble service. We learn to say, “I am not here to look good, but only to serve you.”
When we take on this attitude, indeed we find deep peace and profound rest. The arrogant are yoked to their own illusions. Jesus’ disciples find true freedom in humbly being yoked to him and his vision for humankind.
Nothing has shown us the social connections we have, and need, more than this Covid-19 disease. This disease has forced us to fear, to keep afar, and to question every contact we could possibly make with another human being. One of the things most affected by our social confusion is what the scriptures speak about most clearly, hospitality.
How many times did I hear grandparents would not go near their grandchildren, and children would not bring their kids to see their grandparents? “I don’t want to be responsible for killing you,” people would say, showing just how much ultimate fear had become part of our daily discourse. We cannot begin to imagine a scene such as we have in the first reading, a prophet casually dropping in on a couple to eat until they end up building a bedroom for him to stay in.
Jesus sees hospitality as one of the fundamental ways in which faith is shared. He talks about receiving each other; to the extent that we receive others into relationship in faith, to that extent we receive the one who sent them. Ultimately, it is God who sends us into each other’s lives; ultimately when we receive each other in genuine openness and love, we are receiving God.
But, to be honest, Jesus doesn’t sound very hospitable with the opening lines of this passage—that unless we love Jesus more than our parents, more than our family, we cannot be his followers. We ask, “Why do we have to face a choice like this?” It gets clearer in the next lines. The one choice we have to make is whether to embrace Jesus and his way. When we do that, we will then know how to love everyone else in him.
It’s as if Jesus is saying that when we understand God’s infinite love for everyone, then we have the chance to understand how we are to view each other. God’s love binds us together, certainly as families, but also as friends and neighbors, also as members of a human community whose meaning becomes clear the more we see God’s love for each and all of us.
The passage from Paul’s letter shows the same thing from another angle. When we have completely identified with Christ, as we do when we are baptized, then we have died to the selfish, need-based way we usually live. Rather, in our new relationship with Christ, we find the power of his new life in our hearts, freeing us from the narrow vices that keep us from truly seeing each other.
The new life that Jesus offers us calls us to embrace each other as brothers and sisters. It’s hard to do this literally at this moment in our history, but maybe it’s clearer what this means. We now know how frail we are, how we depend on each other, and how we need to live as one human family—we know this better because of the turmoil of our present life. As Catholics, we gather to worship on behalf of all the human race. As God unifies us in Christ, so God is showing the unity that our very humanity cries out for and needs.
We who, because of our sacraments, know the power of our relationship with Christ, can uphold the importance of relationship, of hospitality, of acceptance in this broken and confused time. We have died with Christ, snuffing out the things that alienate and disunite us. We are invited to a table where God would feed us all as brothers and sisters. We, who have been visited not by a prophet but by the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, bring his transforming love into every relationship of our lives.
Whoever we are, we all feel unsettled when we think we are not protected. This is why the pandemic was so frightening to all of us: we could never be sure we were protected from it. Did I touch my face? Did I not wash my hands enough? Who was I in contact with?
A good percentage of our population, in addition to this, feel unprotected from the very people who are charged to protect them, law enforcement. I know if someone is threatening my life, I was police around. But for some people having the police around feels more like a threat than a security.
Jesus directly addresses fear on the part of his disciples. We are shocked by his confidence—saying not to worry about those who can kill the body, that we are worth more than any number of sparrows, that the hair on our head is counted. We know that persecution came early and frequently to the early followers of Jesus, so Jesus’ words must have been repeated often. Where did that confidence come from?
Jeremiah is the prophet most frequently speaking of persecution. People conspire all around him. “But the Lord is at my side like a mighty champion,” Jeremiah says. Jesus continues this ancient insight: to be on the side of God is to be on the side of victory. The only difference is this: the early followers of Jesus knew what that victory was about; they knew Jesus risen from the dead. They saw that victory in person.
In Paul’s famous reflection in the letter to the Romans, where he contrasts the power of death throughout history with the power of justification in Jesus, he confidently states that the power of the risen Christ overflows for many human beings. God has done something for us in Jesus and, once we see and accept that, the victory of Jesus brings his very strength to our lives.
In other words, in Jesus, we know, in a complete way, that God is on our side. “Therefore, do not be afraid,” Jesus says. Do not be afraid to announce the power and victory of Jesus available to everyone. Do not be afraid to live with such confidence that other see it, feel it, and come to accept it. Do not be afraid to tell a culture that feels unprotected and unsafe that God is our ultimate safety.
For we acknowledge Christ when we live with the trust that he invites us to have. We proclaim Jesus to the world when we radiate trust to all around us. The trust is not some naïve feeling that denies life’s problems; rather, the trust arises in our hearts despite whatever life can throw at us. The old hymn sings that God’s eye is on the sparrow; far more is God’s eye, God’s love, God’s power on every one of us.
I’m afraid our times will continue being unsettled. No one knows the course of this virus; no one can promise soon a vaccine that is guaranteed to work. Likewise, no one knows when cries for justice will lead to needed changes. These are times, Jesus is telling us, when we Christian have so much to give the world: in the face of uncertainty and fear, we believers know we have the absolutely certain power of the risen Christ around us all the time.
The Body and Blood of Christ A
Like the Jewish people of old, we have very mixed feelings about the “manna” in our lives.
Our first reading gives us an idea of this manna. The Jewish people were on the move, away from Egypt, the land of slavery which they still missed; they were traveling through the desert for an undetermined amount of time. When they didn’t have their regular food, God sent them manna, a strange kind of grain, to sustain them. It sustained them until they reached the Promised Land where they could produce their own grain once again.
I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to think of what we’ve been through as something like the desert. In our homes, our regular food routines have been disrupted, even our shopping routines. And certainly getting anything from a restaurant, or even a fast-food chain, has become a multi-step chore.
But particularly when it comes to our worship, with the Eucharist at the center, we have been walking in a desert. We have been deprived of the chance to come together as a family, to hear our readings proclaimed, to share in the Eucharistic Prayer, and to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, whose feast we celebrate today.
Yet God did send us manna, another kind of food that sustained us in our faith, although we preferred more. God sent us multiple live streams of the Mass, homilies from virtually any church in America. God sent us the challenge to form a center of our own faith life by period of prayer and meditation. God sent us the opportunities, which many of us exercised, to pray with our families at home, to share our faith directly.
Just as the Jewish people were tempted to forget, or even disparage, the gift of manna, we are tempted to want to “open everything up” so it returns to the way it was. And, in doing this, we are also tempted to overlook the kind of daily bread, the kind of everyday spirituality, which is as much a part of our faith lives as our ability to go to Mass. For, in this pandemic, we learned that part of what the Sacrament of the Mass means is that the Eucharist is to help us see how God is always feeding us, sharing our lives, and bringing us into union. The Sacrament shows us what our faith lives are about.
As precious as the Eucharist, our central Sacrament, is, it, in itself, is ultimately also a form of manna—a sign pointing to the fullness of life that God promises and is bringing about in our lives. Paul calls the food we take a participation in the Lord’s Body and Blood, a form of living which shows itself in the love we have for each other. And Jesus tells us in the Gospel the Bread he gives us finds its meaning in our eternal life. Jesus sustains us just as the Father sustain him to that we can begin living eternal life even as we journey through life.
God always sustains us, especially at those moments when we feel most abandoned and confused. He gives us bread from heaven, “manna,” to support us on our journeys. Our Catholic lives are filled with these forms of support, whether in our everyday spirituality which affirms us in God’s life, or in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, or in the ultimate promise of the fullness of life which is our goal. God always sustains us so long as we learn what our true hungers are, and how we need to be fed.
Trinity Sunday A
She looked at me, puzzled. “Father, is that you?” she asked. I wondered why she was confused until I remembered that I was wearing my mask. Then I noticed her face. I knew who she was because she has cut my hair for ten years. But as I studied the mask on her face, I realized how much less recognizable she was, how hard it would be for most other people to see who she was.
Sometimes we wear masks to deliberately obscure our faces, as we might a Halloween or as a gangster might during a crime. Sometimes we wear a mask metaphorically, pretending to feel something we do not feel. We put on a happy face, for example, when we feel raw and pained inside. But most of the time we expect to see and recognize each other in one or another relationship. Just imagine the last face we’d want to see before we died.
So what about God? Does God wear a mask? How do we know what God is like?
In fact, it’s been hard to know God over human history. We have projected into God strange ideas of anger and revenge, or we have made God something so abstract it really doesn’t affect our lives. For this reason, we Christians rejoice in the gift of Jesus Christ. He is the one who takes off the masks we create for God; he is the One who shows us the Father of unlimited love.
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” we read in the Gospel this Sunday. This is easily one of the most recognizable scriptures because we’ve seen references to this verse at almost every outdoor event in signs held up by someone in the crowd. Likewise, the start of the letter to the Hebrews says that God spoke in different ways using different symbols in the past; but, in our final days, God has spoken to us through his Son.
When we see a face, even initially, we tend to project into it. Is this a friendly face, or bored face, an all-business face, an angry face? Often our first impressions are wrong. After we know someone well, we not only see the face but we have a whole range of feelings and insights associated with that face. For example, we see so much more in the faces of those we love than others do. When it comes to our life partners, we see both their lives and ours in the faces of those to whom we’ve committed ourselves.
This Trinity Sunday we celebrate the way God has been disclosed to us, after thousands of years of revelation, in Jesus Christ. Jesus shows us the face of the Father. In Jesus we see compassion, grace, joy, mercy, and the promise of life. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus sends his Spirit into our lives, so that we may know God from within our hearts and souls, and so that we may be faces through which others see God.
The life of God, which Jesus shows us, does not stay within God. No, the nature of God’s life is to go forth, to shine forth, to give life. We celebrate this as Christians when we can gather for worship—and we hope we can do that together, again, and soon. But we enjoy this life whenever we realize that Jesus has made us part of God’s eternal life, made us sharers in the life of the Trinity, and given us a relationship with God that abides so long as we choose to view God’s face through the image that Jesus showed us.
Among the many sad things we learned during our pandemic is that we can be made to fight over everything. Whether to wear a mask or not? Whether this was only a gentle flu or not? Whether our churches could be opened or not? As these arguments evolved, we realized that the point was to emphasize the divisions among us, to make one group look one way and another group look like it was stupid, wrong, or even the enemy.
Unfortunately this kind of “we” versus “them” thinking seems to be part of our human nature. Not only do we want to think we are “right.” We need the other person to be “wrong” and we need a group behind us to cheer our side of the argument. Just about every war experienced by humankind had its origins in some of kind of “we” versus “them” thinking.
Part of the drama of the feast we celebrate is this: Pentecost gives us the change to think of ourselves as one, united together, sharing the same Spirit, and open to the same God. In our first reading we have the traditional list of peoples who were gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish feast—Parthians, Medes, Elamites—but instead of grouping together into clusters apart from each other, they are now hearing the same message of salvation offered to all people—hearing that message apart from their nationality or ethnicity.
Pentecost celebrates the desire of God, because of the resurrection of Jesus, to offer humankind a new vision of itself, a vision in which each person knows she or he is gifted by the Spirit of God to be a force for joy, peace, and unity. Our second reading tells us that the gifts we have do not come to us to be kept alone, among ourselves, for our own personal good. No, the gifts of the Spirit—as varied and subtle as they are—become tools for uniting all humankind in a vision of divine love.
When Jesus comes into the closed, fear-filled room of the apostles, who think that everyone and everything is against them, he offers them peace—the gift of reconciliation with him, the one they fled and left to die. Then he breathes his own Spirit upon them, his way of saying that his risen power is now passing to them. After that he challenges them to be agents of reconciliation in the world: because they have the Spirit, they can break down walls, overcome divisions, walk in humility, and find ways of forgiveness and hope.
Reconciliation does not happen by looking back into the past, trying to pick over old wounds and correct old wrongs. It happens by looking forward, to what God would bring about in the world, to a future when we all walk in the Spirit of God in service to each other, and, particularly, in service to the neediest among us.
So this feast of Pentecost God places two ways before us: the way of opposition or the way of reconciliation. If we stay in our little pockets, reconciliation cannot happen. But if we trust that God has the ability to send his Spirit upon us and bring us into a new space, then we begin to understand just what Jesus accomplished by his death and resurrection, and just what God intended when we were called to be his Church.
There’s lots to be said about the experience of quarantine. Most of the comments talk about people gaining so much weight they won’t fit out the front door when it’ all over. And, of course, the binge watching of TV series on one outlet or another. Some have had to home-school their children, enjoying it for the most part. Some were unfortunately caught in a network of domestic abuse which staying home did not help. But I think a common sensation was this: a lot of pent up energy, that could have gone to work or socializing, was ready to burst open.
In some ways the period between the Resurrection and Ascension was like a period of quarantine. Jesus appeared to his apostles and prepared them for ministry. But as long as he was with them in his risen body, what could they do but want to hang around him, admire him, or question him? The Ascension of Jesus was the way Jesus transferred his risen power to his followers. As he was sent, so also they would be sent.
We get a hint of this in the first reading when the disciples ask Jesus about the Kingdom to be restored. Jesus speaks first of all of the power that would come upon them. The word here is like our word for “dynamism”—it’s a power that arises from inside of us and drives us forward. I think a lot of students during this time who were looking to graduate; they exerted a lot of dynamism to finish their last crazy semester and finally get their diplomas. We know dynamism in our life when nothing seems to be able to stop us.
The whole point of the Ascension of Jesus is to put into us, the followers of Jesus, the dynamism that marked his life. We call this the “gift of the Holy Spirit.” We see Jesus in the Gospel with his followers, many of whom still cannot believe that he is actually risen. But he sends them forth, doubts and all, to make disciples of all peoples. We find out what this means when he tells his disciples to teach them to follow everything Jesus has commanded us. Jesus does not doubt that his disciples have the wherewithal to carry this out, even to the ends of the earth.
Of course, what Jesus has commanded us is to live his Beatitudes, to experience such trust in God that we come to know divine love as the foundation of our lives. Because we have this experience of God, we then can be agents of hope, peace, mercy, and liberation to others. We follow his commands when we live with the wisdom the parables give us, when we build communities of reconciliation, when we let people know they are invited to the table of the Lord, that they can share in the joy of the chalice of God’s new covenant. Was not this Jesus’ teaching all through the Gospel?
We are often tempted to think of our faith lives as mostly rules to be followed and lessons to be memorized. But Jesus did not send his disciples out to impose laws or write catechisms. He sent them out first to be examples of the life he lives, and to help others know they could live his life as well by opening themselves up to the power of the Holy Spirit of love.
We often wonder what we would have done on the top of that mountain if Jesus sent us forth? We wonder if our doubts would have given us an escape path from Jesus’ commissioning. But we are all, in fact, on the top of that mountain. Jesus has appeared Sunday after Sunday to us; he sends us forth at the end of every Mass. Is not his love greater than our doubt? Is not his Spirit greater than our fear?
Jesus ascends not to leave us but to become present in a new way. We rejoice in the dynamism of Jesus, now ours as a gift of the Spirit. We pray our hesitations may never leave this dynamism diminished.
Easter 6 A
One of the most frequent, and moving, scenes is when children greet parents, and even grandparents, when they have been separated for a while—daddy’s coming home, grandma visiting, mom’s return from the hospital. These scenes have their opposite, too: when children are separated from their parents—maybe they are lost for an hour, or maybe a parent has died, or maybe children a put in cages far from their mothers and fathers—scenes we’ve seen too often. These help us know the primal, instinctive bonding that happens between children and their elders.
“I will not leave you orphans,” Jesus says to his disciples in today’s Gospel. He wants to spare us the ongoing grief of having been deprived of his presence and his guiding love. Aware as he is of the enormous bonding that has taken place between himself and his followers, Jesus know that they will need special resources if they would continue being his followers—if they would ever mature enough in faith to go forth and act in his name.
He tells them he will send “another Advocate”—that is, another from God who will provide the resources that he did. What resources” Protection, guidance, and ongoing relationship. Because this is what Jesus gave to his disciples; and this is what Jesus continues to give to his Church through the Holy Spirit. Jesus protects, guides and continues to unite with us through the Holy Spirit that he sends upon us.
The Spirit’s protection gives us the assurance of God’s resilience and strength, especially when we are threatened. As we’ve read the Scriptures in these days after Easter, we see that proclaiming Jesus involves risk and leads to dangers. The first letter of Peter today speaks of Easter hope to a people who are already living in fear, who have already suffered for faith. “Be ready to give a reason for the hope that is inside of you,” Peter urges; especially the hope that lets us stare down the threats of others. Once we have God’s inner consolation, we are safe from threats and danger.
The Spirit also guides us. None of us knows what will happen tomorrow, or next week, or next year. Look at how confused we have been throughout this pandemic. So the followers of Jesus need a way to discern steps ahead when new situations arise. The Spirit helps us remember who Jesus is, what he taught, and how he lived. From this we continue to discern how to move ahead into an unclear future. While we do not have the guarantee of never making a mistake, we do have the assurance of Christ’s gift of wisdom.
The Spirit also connects—connects us with Jesus, us with each other, us with the Father who sustains all because God dwells in all. The Spirit even sees our connections with people we once thought strangers, as we see in the first reading. Jesus has revealed to us the extent of the Father’s care and love for us; he has also shown us how we can trust in, yes, even abide in God. This happens through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who allows us to identify with God in a way that makes all other union we may experience in life only a sharing in that basic union that we have with God. The Spirit lets us see our lives as experiences of divine indwelling.
We’ve not been left orphans. Jesus loves us so much he continues to protect, guide and unite with us. In this way, if we have received the Spirit, we can continue his work by the way we protect, guide, and love each other. We are not orphans; we can give to others what has been abundantly given to us!
Easter 5 A
There are many places in my Fathers’ house.
I suspect that’s a line from Jesus’ discourse in today’s Gospel that can resonate with any number of us. I see funny jokes online about people saying, “Where shall we go to church this weekend?” Pause. “In the kitchen or in the living room?” Indeed, with all the stay-in-place rules we’ve had over this time, our houses and apartments can feel very small indeed. We like the idea of having many rooms to roam.
Jesus means a lot of things by these words—how big his Father’s love is, how salvation is for many. But I think the most striking meaning is that God has a place for each one of us with all the differences of our lives and personalities. Sometimes we feel that holiness looks only one way, or Christians all have to look the same. But there are as many ways of holiness as there are people whom the Holy Spirit has touched; Jesus can use what is unique for each one of us to build up his Kingdom.
But even though there are many rooms, Jesus says that getting to his Father’s house has one route: that he is the route. “I am the way, the truth, and the life, “ Jesus says. No one can come to his Father except through him. How can that be, we ask? Didn’t he say that there were many rooms in the Father’s house? Is he now saying that it’s hard to get in?
Jesus rather is elaborating on his words: way, truth, and life. He is saying that his mission is to show the infinite love of the Father. That is his truth, his life. Because this is so, he remains the way to the Father. He shows us the Father’s love by the way he reveals it to us; we show that we live for the Father by the way we live as Jesus did, by the love we are willing to show.
“Whoever sees me has seen the Father,” Jesus says, underscoring the point that his life’s mission has been to reveal the Father in such a way that all can see the Father, and also that all of us can reveal the Father by the way we live. In the words of St. Peter, we announce God’s praises by the way in which we live, by the way we show that we have left darkness and now live in God’s light.
Of course, many of us who claim to follow Jesus only go so far; as a result, our lives do not reveal the love of God for everyone. Paradoxically, many who do not claim to follow Jesus manage to reveal a lot of the Father’s love by the generosity of their lives. Seeing God is not a matter of our eyeballs, just like seeing the Risen Jesus is not a bodily function. Seeing God means we make the generous love of God the path that we follow and the truth that grounds us.
Our current emergency, and the way we politicize it, leads us to identify heroes and villains on a regular basis. But no one doubts that the bravery of people who have staffed our hospitals and served in our clinics, often at great risk to themselves and in almost impossible circumstances, stand out in a special way. They are not just heroes but as people who reveal God’s love to us.
These are the “greater works” Christ says his followers will do—greater because even lowly and weak people like us can be ways in which God is revealed to the world. God uses us to create the many rooms that compose the Father’s house, to construct the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed.
Easter 4 A
Feeling safe is one of our most primal instincts. We can see that now, during our pandemic, when just about everything we do can make us afraid. Did I touch some metal? Did I wash my hands a lot? Is that person far enough from me? Did I pick up the virus from that person who sneezed? Will my mask be effective protection?
So our hearing of the Gospel today, which presents Jesus in several metaphors involving being a shepherd, ought to deeply console us. There might be other false shepherds who run away when things get difficult, but Jesus is not like that. No, Jesus give everything he has, because of his love for his sheep. “Whoever enters through me will be saved,” Jesus says.
It’s natural to think of Shepherds primarily as people who defend us, who keep away attacking animals and would-be enemies. And it’s consoling to think of Church—even when we cannot go to church at times like this—as a place to keep us safe. People often refer to the comfort of their church, how warm it makes them feel, how secure.
But Jesus shows us a picture of a Shepherd who is quite active. The shepherd’s job is to lead the sheep. The shepherd goes first, faces the danger, and then calls out so that the sheep can be assured at the familiarity of the shepherd’s voice. “My sheep know my voice,” Jesus says.
But doesn’t knowing Jesus’ voice mean that we are called to go out ourselves, to lead for others, to help others find the gate through which they can come to experience Jesus? Isn’t Jesus calling us not to be passive sheep, nor even to be laid back shepherds, but to be about the shepherding of people in the world in which we live? Precisely because we feel secure in Christ, we can act as he did, to be ways in which others find Christ’s pasture.
In many ways parents do this as a natural part of raising their children, they model a form of faith which can permanently strengthen their sons and daughters. Sometimes we take on other shepherd-like roles. A policeman or nurse can do their job, but they also can transform their job when they see it as an expression of their faith, of the love Jesus shows us. But even beyond this, we often run into folks who just seem to be wandering through life, no real direction or hope. These are people we can shepherd by helping them see the doors we have opened and what they have done for us.
We feel so much more secure in our lives because we have heard the voice of Jesus. But we can ourselves be Jesus’ voice through our own faith-filled living, reaching out in service to others. Through us, through our lives, Jesus’ voice echoes once again, speaking with assuring love.
Easter 3 A
How would it be for us to spend a morning with Jesus?
What do we imagine we’d talk about? What would Jesus be interested in? What would we want to know about him?
We have in the Gospel today one of the most famous walks in human history, Cleopas and his companion, whoever she or he might be, leaving Jerusalem as fast as they can. When we confront a tragedy, one of our most natural instincts is to turn away from the place where it happened. If someone I love was killed in an accident, every time I went near that place, I would cringe. When the World Trade Center collapsed, many New Yorkers could not bear to watch the smoke rising day after day.
But even though Cleopas and his companion feel a need to run away, to return to their past lives, Jesus begins a conversation that invites them to look at the tragedy they want to escape, but to look at it through the eyes of hope and faith. “Was it not necessary?” Jesus concludes. “Can’t you see that there’s a bigger picture here than the death of your religious hero?”
Surely, if we talked with Jesus, he’d ask us if we felt disappointed in our lives, particularly if that disappointment led us to become stuck. Jesus’ ministry was always to free people, to get them over the hurdles they or society placed in their way. He might very well ask us about the things we feel are the worst about ourselves. And he’d love us all the more for these burdens we carry.
What would we ask him? On the one hand, we are always curious about his life, how he felt, what he thought about things. What did you do in your childhood? Did you always want to be a prophet? What did your family, especially Mary, feel when you left home? How did Judas make you feel? What was it like to die? To be dead?
I suspect, though, Jesus would want us to dwell less on the past and more on the future. He’d want us to ask what his dreams were for human history, how he could hope in us when we keep messing things up, how his Kingdom would emerge from the checkered history we had created. I suspect Jesus would want us to leave that walk with him believing in the hope that he had for us, in the power of love to untwist hate, on the ability of hope to pull us through the blockages we keep finding in life.
That’s what he did whenever people ate with him. He filled their imaginations with hope as bread multiplied to feed hunger, and with reconciliation as public traitors sat with him and learned of God’s mercy. So he eats with these two depressed people on their way to Emmaus, people whose hearts were already so on fire they barely realized it. And as he breaks the bread, they see the future of humankind open up before them: Jesus is raised! The past cannot hold us back, neither can our sins! There’s one road ahead, a road of love and life.
At this time when we cannot eat sacramentally with Christ due to the disruption of the pandemic, Jesus would surely insist that this was not a total hurdle. Rather, it can be an opportunity for us to explore in our prayer and meditation how Jesus continues to walk with us, knowing our sadness and fears, but still showing a vision of loving hope.
Easter 2 A
He is like a lot of us. He just needed a little more time.
You know, some of us are late bloomers, take a while to pick a major, decide we’ll wait to get married, or get into our life-long careers after years of work.
Why shouldn’t Thomas have needed more time? How quick should he have decided that what his comrades were telling him might in some way be true. Not just that Jesus appeared. Not just that they knew it was him by the wounds he showed them. Not just that he forgave them and offered them peace. All that was plenty to absorb. And, if it was true, what would that mean?
But their story went even further. Jesus told them he was bestowing his Holy Spirit on them, that they would be instruments of reconciliation in the lives of others. Most of all, he said to them: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Really?
After all, how long has it taken us to begin to absorb the reality of Jesus’ resurrection and, even more, its implications for us? If we seriously looked at our own lives, the things that make us worry and the things that get our attention, do we seem like we are living with the conviction that Jesus rose from the dead, and that this risen life is ours?
How many centuries have Christians heard Jesus’ words that we are sent by him, just as he was sent by the Father? To be living signs of joy, hope, healing, and reconciliation? How many of us live in such a way that the Spirit of Jesus shines out from our lives?
Of course, we want to. We hear the Easter message year by year. We feel glimmers of joy somewhere inside of us. But we live with the same fears as everyone else, the same questions, the same hesitations. It just takes time for us, in fact, a lot more than it took for Thomas.
Like Thomas, we want to test Jesus, to see if God will do what we want God to do. Yes, prove you are who you say you are. But, like Thomas, we know that’s only a game, a way to put Jesus off, a way to buy even more time for ourselves.
At some point, however, we know that we’ve had time enough. At some point we fall to our knees and say, “My Lord and My God.” At some point we know we cannot live without Easter because every fiber in our bodies, and every sincere thought in our minds, and every prayer we say, cries out for the fullness of life.
Jesus gave Thomas time. Jesus gives us time. But he still stands before us, still stands beside us, asking us if we’re ready, asking us if we’ve finally decided to be the Easter people he rose to make us.
Easter Sunday A
Today, Easter comes after a Lent of enormous obstacles.
We hardly knew back near the end of February just how deprived we would be. The obstacles we faced put our very human society at risk, not only physically but most especially in our very existence as a community.
We faced a disease we could barely name and had difficulty seeing. The disease forced us away from each other, looking at each other with suspicion or outright fear. We closed our stores, our theaters, our malls. We even closed our churches.
This disease, and our fear of it, became an obstacle to our celebrating the presence of Christ in our midst in the Eucharist.
So we are like the women in today’s Gospel, running to a tomb but not knowing who will remove the obstacles: the soldiers who guard it, the tomb that blocks it. Who will roll away the stone? We wonder, we sorry.
God’s messenger tells us that the stone has already been rolled back. The tomb is already empty. Though we face our fears and doubts, God’s saving action has decisively struck. For he has vanquished the fear and hatred that led to the death of his Son, the One he sent to heal, to forgive, to reconcile, to love. He has removed the blindness that has blocked our human eyes from the beginning, the fear that tells us that we have to be our own gods, our own saviors.
No matter how beset we are with threat, Jesus was threatened more. No matter how shamed and confused, Jesus was even more so. No matter how death surrounds us, Jesus absorbed death and took it to himself. But, now as the messenger explains, “He has been raised. He is not here.”
Where is he, then? In our faith, in our hearts, in the eyes we have that twinkle with hope, in the way we embrace each other, in our prayer, in our longing for church and Mass, in the way you and I look to the future not with trembling but with joy.
He has been raised and given the Spirit to the community that puts him at the center of its life. Has not Christ been with us all these days, in spite of all obstacles and deprivations? Has not Christ always been with us? And will he not continue to be with us?
He is raised. Do not be afraid. Go tell the world that he goes before us into the glory for which we are destined.
Passion Sunday A
Giuseppe Bernadelli was one of dozens of priests who died of the coronavirus in Bergamo, the city in Northern Italy mostly made famous as the birthplace of St. John XXIII. Father Bernadelli’s name was widely circulated, though, because of an enormously generous gesture. Although he was 70 years of age and certainly qualified for a ventilator, he preferred that the ventilator be given to someone much younger. He gave up part of his life to extend the life of another.
As such, he is a hero, and he reminds us of the hundreds of thousands of professionals and public servants who have put their lives at risk to help the rest of us. Some people take on so much risk that they end up dying for others.
It’s tempting to read the Passion story in this way, Jesus as the hero who gives up his life for the rest of humankind. Yet we cannot lose sight of the particular kind of sacrifice that Jesus makes. Jesus’ death does not mean, after all, that you and I don’t have to worry about dying. His death did not take away our death. Instead, it changed the meaning of our deaths.
When we hear the story of Jesus Last Supper, agony, arrest, and assassination, the story has so much power we might overlook the invitation the Passion story has for each one of us. Jesus does not die in our place. No, he dies alongside of us, he dies with us. In doing so, he teaches us what life and death mean.
Jesus death flowed from his life. He lived to bring the Kingdom of God into human experience. His death is part bringing the Kingdom. He dies giving witness to the overwhelming love of God who promises us a yet fuller life beyond death if we have begun to live with a vision of the Kingdom. That vision means we live with a passion for others, for their healing and their justice. That vision means everyone is treated as sacred because of God’s eternal love for them.
The women of those days wept for Jesus. But Jesus doesn’t want our tears. Rather he wants us to live with the vision that consumed him, to live in witness to God’s love, to live for the betterment of all creation, to be witnesses of hope. Given what we are going through as a society, when we cannot even gather for Easter, we now know what a precious commodity hope is.
Jesus dies not exactly as a hero so much as God’s witness, showing us the fullness through and beyond death, a fullness that secures our deepest hopes.
Lent 5 A
That’s how the cookie crumbles. It is what it is. Life never promised you a rose garden.
We have many phrases that encourage us to be tough, Stoic, and to accept the things that happen to us which seem beyond our control. The death of Lazarus seemed beyond the control of everyone, too, except, of course, Jesus. What do they say: the two inescapable things in life are death and taxes? The reactions of Mary, Martha and the whole community to the death of Lazarus paint a picture of inescapable death and grief.
We might well be puzzled at Jesus’ attitude through all of this. John’s Gospel shows Jesus as fully aware of his friend’s illness, but Jesus deliberately delays coming. The sisters of Lazarus, while being polite to Jesus, signal their disappointment, even regrets, when they say, “If only you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Even the townspeople express surprise: could not have this miracle-worker done a miracle for his friend?
In spite of all this emotionally laden language, the Gospel invites us to see Jesus’ point with great clarity. Certainly, the physical raising of Lazarus has enormous clarity. We cannot hear this passage without pictures of this man limping from the darkness of the tomb after Jesus calls his name. The image is indelible.
But there’s another point of clarity when Jesus says to Martha, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Then he asks her—and he’s is asking us as well—whether she believes this. She responds with the traditional belief about resurrection at that time in Israel, but Jesus tells her that something beyond her traditional belief is now available to her. “I am the resurrection.”
Although we want to think of resurrection in terms of bodies that do not corrupt and keep on functioning, Jesus is saying that bodily preservation is not the point; rather, the endurance of relationships is the central focus of our faith and our relationship with God. Do we not see that once we have a relationship with God then we exist forever in God’s eternal love? “I am the resurrection,” says Jesus. “I have established your relationship with God, with eternal life. This is far more essential than the biology that traps you.”
When we hear “eternal life” we imagine “future life” or “life hereafter.” But that’s not Jesus’ teaching. “Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” After all the funerals we’ve been to, especially the fears of these months, it is hard for us to see Jesus’ point. Jesus tells us that the power to live forever, the power of eternal life, has already been given to us when we believe, when we let God know us and abide in us. This eternal life is already present; we are living in it now.
In fact, this eternal life is what we celebrate when we gather for Mass. In this time of pandemic, when we are deprived of liturgical celebrations, the great blessing of the Eucharist might become clearer to us. Eucharist is when Jesus affirms his unending life in each of us and in all of us as his living Body. Eucharist is how the power of risen life grows in us as disciples.
A popular prayer asks God to give us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change. Indeed, all of us have to accept life’s limitations. But we should know what those limitations actually are. Jesus assures us that even death is not a limitation in the face of the enduring relationships we have in God through faith.
Lent 4 A
Don’t touch your face! We’ve been hearing this for the past two weeks; the more they say it, the harder it is not to touch our faces. It’s just instinctual, whether scratching, pushing hair from our eyes, or grabbing a tissue. This caution makes us realize that our face is actually a set of carefully arranged openings, between our mouths, noses and even our eyes; it’s a major way things get into our bodies.
So how do we feel with this phrase in the Gospel, that Jesus “made clay from dirt and his own spit,” and he then put that on the blind man’s eyes? It isn’t even clear that the man asked Jesus to do this. Rather, the man seems to be used principally as a passive example of what can happen—his parents must have sinned, so that’s why he was born blind.
Last week we had the water of the well; this week, we have a different kind of water—the spittle that Jesus uses to make the clay he’ll put on the eyes of this blind man. The word “clay” reminds us of another Biblical image, when God makes clay and shapes it into the form of Adam, the first human. Jesus is doing something analogous to what his Father does when he creates: he is bringing into being something that wasn’t there before.
Yes, the man is born blind. That’s how we know this is an act of creation. Jesus is not restoring something the man had and then lost; he is bringing into that man’s world something that he never had before and, I’m sure, something that he thought he would never have. We can imagine how he lived, how dependent his was on others, especially his parents, and how small his world had to be.
When Jesus puts the mud on this man’s eyes, he is asking him: do you want new life? Do you want my life penetrating you? Do you want to see with my eyes? Can I touch you in a way that will leave you changed forever?
The blind man washes in the pool called “Sent.” This completes the imagery for us: the pool indeed is the water of baptism, the sacrament by which Christ’s life penetrates our own lives, the sacrament in which we become children of God and sisters and brothers of Jesus. Do we want to see like Jesus? Or look upon others as Jesus did? Or speak like Jesus, or care like Jesus, or give ourselves like Jesus? Do we want Jesus to penetrate us?
At this time of year, we are powerfully mindful of those who are preparing to enter the Church, for whom Baptism and Holy Communion will not be memories or weekly actions but powerful, new experiences of encountering Jesus. Yet what happened and happens to us is not anything less than what will happen to them: our conversions, our discipleship, our following of Jesus is confirmed at every Mass we celebrate.
The man born blind begins as somewhat of a passive figure; people talk about him and he has to listen. But after Jesus touches him, he finds himself and his voice. When they try to shut him down, he affirms in their faces: “The only thing I know is this: I was blind but now I can see.” Can we remain ourselves passive and quiet in the face of what Christ does for us every day? Has not Christ given us a vision, and also a voice with which to speak it out?
Lent 3 A
Serge Rachmaninoff’s music is very popular. He lived over 100 years ago and was a great Russian composer. He wrote three piano concertos, but the second one he wrote was a breakthrough. It seems after his first concerto he underwent profound doubt and depression. He was unable to write because he didn’t believe in himself. It was only after years of doctoring and care that he found the ability to compose again. This second piano concerto is among his most favored.
We do get stuck in life, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s psychological, a profound insecurity. Sometimes it’s occupational; we just don’t have the time. It could also be social—what others expect or do not expect of us. We feel written off or dismissed.
People had written off this Samaritan woman; maybe given how small her hometown was, and her history, they might have had good reason to write her off. She has to come, in the midst of the day’s heat, to get water at the well. No wonder she is shocked when this strange man, not of her stock, comes up to her.
“Is he asking something of me?” She must have thought that. Did he trust her that much? Was he showing her that she still had the capacity to give? She dismisses his opening: “How can a Jew like you ask a Samaritan like me to give you something?” The Samaritan woman is stuck in two ruts. One rut is her reaction to the external opposition of her peers; the other rut is the way she has taken disapproval and made it the inner voice of her head. She’s blocked; she’s stuck; she cannot move to another spot.
Neither can we, for that matter, in areas of our lives. We too fall victim to both what others think of us as well as the way we imprison ourselves in the distorted self-images we have constructed for ourselves. We are not good enough for others; we are not even good enough for ourselves. That’s what we think—until Jesus comes into our lives.
The spirituality of Lent is, to a large extent, a spirituality of freedom. The things we give up are to help us feel our freedom; the generosity we show reveals a freer heart; the prayer we make come from a deeper spot, a freer spot, in our hearts. But this freedom is proportional to the extent we are willing to let Jesus engage us in dialogue.
For when we dialogue with Jesus, new images come about. Instead of being trapped in the images of ourselves we have formed, we can now perceive how Jesus sees us. Instead of thinking we have no status, Jesus shows us the status we have before the Father. Instead of thinking we have nothing to offer, Jesus sends his spirit to fill us with gifts. He starts the conversation: isn’t there anything in your heart you can give me? Once you do, you’ll be a disciple, a partner, a soul set free.
The well in our Gospel symbolically points to the well of water in which we were baptized, an inexhaustible well of divine life and love which forever slakes our thirst. We’ve been washed and given new life in Jesus’ endless water. Who says we are stuck? Healing and new life are always there.
Lent 2 A
Our whole classroom was astonished. This was back in the mid-50s when we were squished together in our classroom at St. Paul the Apostle on the West Side of Manhattan. Because this was well before Yuppies were moving into the neighborhood, we were a pretty rangy collection of kids from tenements, the housing projects, and other marginal housing. One fellow in our class—I cannot remember his name—seemed to come right from some Irish gang around 57th Street. Always in trouble. Always ready for a fight. But one day we were blown away. It was near Christmas and we were singing our favorite carols. This fellow gets up and, I a solo, blasts away with “O Holy Night” in a magnificent baritone voice. We could not believe it. We never thought it was in him.
With all their exposure to Jesus, I doubt even the three prominent ones mentioned in the Gospel today, Peter, James and John, ever dreamed what was in Jesus. Sure there were healings of various kinds, crowds following, and some powerful words. But they are blown away by the vision of glory that Jesus shows them on the top of the mountain. So blown away by this vision that they had no idea what they were supposed to do with it.
Peter gets the first idea about building booths for Jesus and Moses and Elijah. In this way Peter could hope that the glory would remain forever, that he didn’t have to worry about all those predictions that Jesus made about his defeat and death in Jerusalem. “Let’s freeze this moment of glory,” Peter seems to be thinking. But at this exact moment the brilliance disappears and, instead a dark cloud comes over them and terrifies them. But out of that cloud comes the voice of Jesus’ Father with the words that tell us what this scene, and the whole Gospel is about: This is my beloved Son, listen to him!
Doing this is not as easy as seeing Jesus’ glory. To listen to Jesus is to realize what his life is about, the service that would entail the giving of his very life in the most gruesome way; to listen to Jesus is to realize that our lives sometimes have bright spots and often have dark spots, but God’s voice rings through them all, assuring us that we are beloved just as Jesus is. If we follow Jesus up the mountain, can we follow him down? Can we be with him in the agony that would offset this moment of splendor?
What is really in Jesus? What is really in us? So often we think of our lives as uneventful and even burdensome. We expect little of ourselves and we hope God expects even less. But just as Jesus carried glory within and around him when we ministered, so we too carry Jesus’ glory about us, even in the incidental moments that can seem so trivial—putting a child to bed, helping a grandparent down the stairs, giving a homeless person some money, or boosting someone with a message of hope.
Peter and his companions had to climb the mountain to see Jesus’ glory. But God’s voice says that Jesus’ glory is there for any of us who dare to listen to Jesus’ voice and put his way of life into effect in our own lives.