Sunday, March 12, 2017

Transfiguration: Changed and Transformed by Christ

Transfiguration by Raffaello (1483-1520)

(Second Sunday of Lent-Year A; This homily was given on March 11 & 12, 2017 at St. Anthony's Church, Pawtucket, R.I.  See Genesis 12:1-4 and Matthew 17:1-9)

Change is difficult.  All of us can identify with how difficult, and sometimes even overwhelming, change can be.  Whether it be some sudden alteration that catches us completely by surprise, or some new circumstance that we have totally anticipated, changes in life can be a real challenge. 

In the Catholic vision of things, however, change is not only inevitable, but even necessary for our growth in the spiritual life.  This season of Lent is about repentance, having a change in heart and being open to the graces that God pours out into our lives.  Touched by God, we can . . . and should be . . .  open to embracing His plan for our lives in the midst of countless changes.  We can . . . and should be . . . able to recognize the places where we need to change in the way that we live and the way that we love.  Blessed John Henry Newman, 19th Century theologian and Cardinal of the Church, explains it this way:

“In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
—Blessed John Henry Newman, 
The Development of Christian Doctrine, Ch.1, 1.7

Without change we cannot become the men and women God has always called us to be.  “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

I mention that today because the readings for this Second Sunday of Lent are about change.  In our First Reading from the Book of Genesis, Abram (whose very name God will change to Abraham) is called by God to leave his homeland and journey to a place that he has never seen before.  God bids him:

Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.
—Genesis 12:1

It has been said that moving is one of the most stressful and difficult changes we can experience in life; not to move into a new house after one has just received a job promotion, but to move away from what is familiar and to start again in an unknown place.  Abram is asked by God to leave everything, to move to a foreign land.  Those of you in this parish who have moved here from the Azores, or from Cape Verde, know exactly what that kind of change is like.  Yet Abram was obedient to God in the midst of that difficult change.  He responded in faith and allowed God to transform him and make him the father of our faith (Romans 4:16).

In the Gospel for this weekend there is an even more dramatic change.  Jesus Christ goes to the top of Mount Tabor with Peter, James and John.   St. Matthew’s Gospel describes what happened next:

He was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.
—Matthew 17:2

His entire body and His very appearance completely changed before them!  They saw His glory, the glory that He possessed with the Father before time began, and the glory that He would share with the Father after His resurrection from the dead.   But why would Christ choose to appear before them in all His glory?

St. Leo the Great, in a sermon dating back to the 5th Century, explains that Christ was transfigured before Peter, James and John for two reasons.  Firstly, He wanted them to see His glory so that they would not be scandalized by the cross and become discouraged in their apostolic mission.  In other words, these men would witness Jesus Christ rejected by men, betrayed, beaten and crucified.  The Messiah that they loved would be killed.  That would be enough to discourage anyone!  Seeing Christ in glory now, they would remember the way the story ends.  Even in the days following the passion of Christ, these disciples would remember—despite all appearances to the contrary—that Jesus’ end is glory, not shame.  

The second reason for the transfiguration, according to St. Leo the Great, is so that these disciples would know that this is what God is calling them to, as well.  They, too, will experience rejection and persecution for their faith in Christ.  They will also endure humiliating trials and even cruel tortures.  Whatever the disappointments and sorrows of this life, in the end the Christian is called to be with Christ in glory.  That does not make the crosses of this life easy, but it does help us to live as people of hope.  These disciples lived as apostles of hope in a world that was thirsting for God.  They doled out hope like candy before the children of this world, and the world as they knew it would never be the same.  The transfiguration of Christ was a major part of that transformative power at the heart of their apostolic ministry.

To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.   These disciples allowed the glory of God and the power of Christ to change their lives and orient their faith.  Because they responded to God, like Abraham, God was able to use them to transform the culture they lived in.  They were changed by God’s grace and then sent forth into the world to transform the world around them.  This is at the heart of the Sacred Scriptures for us on this Second Sunday of Lent, and it is the great message of the Christian faith: God has the power to change our lives—if we let Him—and then to send us out to be instruments of transformation in the world we live in.

Down through the centuries the Church has always taken up this transformative and life-giving mission.  It is the Church that founded hospitals to tend to the sick and the suffering, the elderly and the infirm.  It is the Church that founded universities and facilitated the education of entire cultures.  The Church has always strived to follow the mandate of Jesus Christ to care for the bodily and spiritual needs of those with whom Christ identifies Himself: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

That work of the Gospel continues even here, even now, in the many ministries and apostolic works that take place in our own diocese. 

In the City of Providence, Emmanuel House continues to serve hundreds of people each month who have no place to live and nothing to eat.  In weather as cold as we have been experiencing, we thank God that there are people serving and providing for the needs of the homeless at Emmanuel House.  

At the same time, we can consider Bishop Tobin’s “Keep the Heat On” campaign.  Each year thousands of dollars are donated to assist people in cities across our state so that they can keep their homes heated and live in safety and dignity.  Can you imagine what it would be like if, after this Mass today, you were to go home in this weather and discover that there was no heat in your house?  Because of the generosity of so many people, there is heat today for many, many warm and grateful people.  

More than that, the Diocese of Providence provides immigration and refugee services for people like Abraham, and like so many of our own families, who have journeyed from a distant and foreign land and are struggling to make a new beginning here in our own communities.  

Catholic Charities provides senior centers that assist the elderly with so many of the vital tasks and services that we all take for granted so often.  In a culture where the rights and even the lives of our elderly citizens are often at risk, the Church responds even now to make a brighter future filled with hope.

Finally, I would like to mention the Seminary of Our Lady of Providence, where I serve as rector.  We have twenty-two young men studying for the priesthood, men who will one day preach the Gospel and celebrate the Sacraments for those who long to see the face of God.  Our very existence as a seminary depends upon the generosity of parishioners like you who give each year to the Catholic Charity Fund Appeal.  Today I would like to express my gratitude for all who have given so generously to provide us with the material and spiritual needs that allow us to form priests for the future of our Church.  

In conclusion, I would like to ask for your generosity in continuing this great work of the Gospel, in its many different facets, throughout the Diocese of Providence.  Perhaps you have a regular amount that you contribute each year, or perhaps you have never before considered the importance of making a contribution to Catholic Charities.  Even the smallest change, and certainly an openness to what God is asking of each of us, could make a major difference in the lives of so many people in the coming year alone.  

As we begin the Catholic Charity Fund Appeal once again this year, may God truly change our hearts and continue to make us instruments of transformation in the world around us.  In our charity towards those in need, in the way that we see each other, and especially in the way that we receive God in our lives, may we be open to the many changes that life brings.  For, in the words of Blessed John Henry Newman, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Christ in the Desert, Christ in Us

(First Sunday of Lent-Year A; This homily was given on March 4 & 5, 2017 at St. Mary's Church, Carolina, R.I. and St. James Chapel, Charlestown, R.I.  See Genesis 2:7-3:7 and Matthew 4:1-11)

One of the great Christian writers and storytellers of this past century is the British author, C.S. Lewis.  Professor at Oxford and Cambridge, his conversion story from Atheism to Anglicanism is alone a remarkable tale.  Lewis is the author of the amazing book series, The Chronicles of Narnia.  That series is known popularly today for the recent films it inspired: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  These fantasy-fiction stories, of course, are all allegories for the Christian faith and tell the great story of Jesus Christ, the apsotles and the Church.

About a decade before the Chronicles of Narnia were written, however, Lewis had already produced another great fiction series, his Space Trilogy.  In these books, Dr. Ransom is the hero who travels to exotic planets and encounters creatures and peoples very different from our world, yet also very similar.  All three books contain the struggle of good versus evil, the battle for virtue and integrity, and the bonds of friendship that are forged in the fires of adversity.

The second book in the Space Trilogy, Perelandra, finds Ransom on the planet by that same name.  He encounters a striking young woman there, and after a while he comes to realize that she and her people are very much like human beings on earth with one great exception: they have never experienced the reality of sin.  In fact, this innocence and purity is more attractive to Ransom than even her external beauty.  Lewis simply refers to her as “the Lady.”  She understands that she is a creature, created by God, and that He loves her.  She, in turn, also desires to love God and follow His commandments.  

Not surprisingly, soon another character shows up on the scene, the “the un-man.”  He is completely fixed on a single goal: to lure the Lady away from God by getting her to break His central commandment.  He wonderfully weaves enticing arguments to convince her that breaking this commandment will open her up to entirely new experiences, a life unlike the one she is living, beyond what she could ever imagine.  Does this sound familiar?

Ransom, of course, is immediately aware of the danger.  He knows well what it means to break God’s commandments; he has already seen what this new “experience” has done to the people on his own planet.  He comes to the Lady’s rescue by arguing against the un-man.  For a while, in fact, he does quite well.  But then, slowly, something begins to happen: Ransom gets tired.  He is, after all, a human being.  He can only sustain the battle for so long.  As he inevitably drifts off to sleep, one final thought occurs to him.  While it is true that he will need rest and recuperation, that might not necessarily be the case for the un-man.

Upon waking, Ransom realizes that this terrible premonition has become a reality.  He quickly jumps into a conversation between the Lady and the un-man, the beginning of which he has never even heard.  He cannot sustain this struggle forever, and realizes desperately that he does not have the stamina to defeat this terrible evil.

In our first reading for this weekend, the story of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis is much less dramatic.  The struggle against temptation and the wiles of the devil end rather quickly.  Adam and Even give in and transgress the commandment of God.  Their sin brings death and sorrow into the human experience and the world is forever changed.  

So much for a good beginning to our Lenten journey!  But the Church places this story before us on this First Sunday of Lent for a reason.  The vital lesson that we learn right away is that we do not—of ourselves—have the power to defeat evil.  Whether it be that we give in suddenly and break the commandments, like Adam and Eve, or whether we fall after a long and noble struggle, like Ransom, in the end we will all lose this battle against the forces of evil.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes this desperate plight, and also signals the tremendous damage that can come through ignorance of the power of evil so often rampant in education, politics, society and the moral life (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #407).  We simply do not have the ability to defeat this malicious enemy.

And God knows that.

That is why God took on our human nature, and became man.  Jesus Christ is the God-man who enters into the desert in the Gospel this weekend, and meets the devil head-on, and face-to-face.  Jesus Christ squares off with Satan in the desert, and He defeats him.  Christ, in His human nature, is victorious in that struggle against temptation and forcefully commands: “Get away, Satan!”—Matthew 4:10

This powerful scene in the Gospel, and the celebration of the Eucharist here, reveals more than Jesus’ victory over temptation.  It anticipates His final victory over sin and death at the cross and His rising from the dead.  The risen Christ will send the Holy Spirit upon the Church and allow us to share in His victory over the devil and over death itself.  That is the great message of this First Sunday of Lent, and it is the great meaning of our Christian faith.  We do not have the power to defeat evil, but in Jesus Christ the victory is ours!  Christ lives in us, and now we can do what was never before possible by His power working in us (Colossians 1:27).  St. Paul says, with great confidence, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).   

I would like to offer three powerful ways that Christ lives in us, for our reflection at the beginning of this Lenten season.  The first is rather obvious: Christ lives in us through the Sacraments that He instituted in the Church for this very purpose.  In Baptism, we are cleansed of original sin and the Holy Spirit is sent into our souls.  Christ lives in us like never before, allowing us to conquer temptation through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Even though we may fall 1,000 times, when we turn back to Him 1,001 times, the victory is His in us!  In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we bring our sins, our faults and our failures before Him and we hear those awesome words from Christ: “I absolve you from your sins.”   In the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, we receive the body and blood, soul and divinity, of Jesus Christ, our Lord and God.  He lives in us, and so we have the power to live completely for God, no matter how weak and feeble we may consider ourselves in the tasks set before us.  Jesus Christ lives in us through the sacraments of the Church.

Secondly, Christ lives in us through the powerful truth He teaches us this weekend in that first refutation of the Devil.  Our Lord, in response to the temptation to turn stones into bread, proclaims:

"It is written: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God."

—Matthew 4:4

We do not and cannot live by the things of this world only.  Having enough to eat is not sufficient.  Receiving an abundance of all that this world has to offer is, in the end, simply not enough.  We need more.  We need God.  Sacred Scripture draws us deeply into that relationship and friendship with God, into that intimacy that allows us to experience Christ living and working in us.  We experience what St. Paul describes as the fruits of the Spirit: Love, Joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).  When we spend some small amount of time each day, reading Sacred Scripture, our lives are refashioned, made new.  We are given the inspiration that helps us to see that we are children of God, co-heirs to eternal life with Him.  The more that we become immersed in Sacred Scripture, the more we will experience Christ living in and through us.

Finally, we experience the power of God and the presence of Christ working in us, not only in the Sacraments of the Church and in the revealed word of God, but also by making Christ known in the world that we live in.  The opposite is true for those who would hoard these riches we receive in Christ.  If we are reticent about sharing our faith and making Christ known in the world we live in, we risk losing even what little we believe we have in our relationship with God.  It is only when we can move out of ourselves, and make Jesus Christ known in the world that we live in, that we truly experience the power of Christ living and moving in us.  

As we enter this Lenten season, we ask Christ for the grace to have true and abundant life in Him.  May we come to see not only the victory of Jesus Christ over Satan in the desert this weekend, but may we also grow to share most fully in that victory of Christ over sin and death itself.  May Jesus Christ continue to strengthen and sanctify us all throughout these days of Lent, as we prepare for the great celebration of Easter and His resurrection from the dead.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Providence and Dependence

St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226)

(8th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on February 25, 2017 at St. Eugene Church in Chepachet, R.I. & February 26, 2017 at St. Peter's Church in Warwick R.I.  See Isaiah 49:14-15 and Matthew 6:24-34)

Our readings for this weekend are focused primarily on God’s providence.  What does it mean to say that God will always provide for us?  How is it that God cares for all our needs?  Christ, in the Gospel of St. Matthew, juxtaposes this providence with worry and concern.  He says:

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?
—Matthew 6:25

It is probably safe to say that none of us here today are concerned about those specific things.  We all know where our next meal will come from, and we are all fortunate enough to have clothes to wear.  Not everyone does, so we thank God for what we have received.  But it is also entirely possible that there are other things we worry about.  We wonder what our future will be like, if God will be able to provide for us, and for those we love, in the days ahead.  We all want to be happy, to live a good life and have the relationships and experiences that will bring true contentment.  Will God be able to provide those things?

In our darkest moments, perhaps, we may also ask the most difficult of questions: Where exactly is God in all this?  Is God even in my life at all?  Has God left me all alone?

If you have ever asked those questions before, or maybe are even asking them now, then you are in good company.  Those are the questions that the people of Israel are asking in the first reading, from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.  They have returned home from having been in exile for decades; taken away from their land, from the Temple, from all that was dear to them, their very way of life.  Where was God when all these things happened?  Perhaps in a moment of desperation, daughter Zion express her anxiety and concern as she struggles to make a new beginning:

"The LORD has forsaken me; my LORD has forgotten me."
—Isaiah 49:14

God’s response is as gentle as it is powerful.  He does not rebuke Israel, or remind them that they were in exile because they had forgotten Him!  He does not remind them of all the countless times He has cared for them, with love beyond all telling.  Instead, with a present love and an everlasting promise, He replies:

Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb?  Even should she forget, I will never forget you.
—Isaiah 49:15

This is providence.  This is God’s care and provision, extended to us in love.  Jesus, in the Gospel this weekend, gives us the key to grasping that promise and holding fast to it.  He instructs us:

Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.
—Matthew 6:33

When we seek first God’s kingdom, eternal life, our relationship with Him here in this world and in the world to come, then our lives are ordered to receive the fullness of what God longs to give us.  Our hearts must be set on Him alone, the God who is our very life, and then we begin to discover, in our dependence upon Him, all that we really and truly need.  

The great Christian author, C.S. Lewis, has a beautiful expression that captures this Gospel passage well.  He says that, if you look at history, the men and women that did the most for this world were the men and women that thought mostly of the world to comeAim at heaven, he said, and you will get earth thrown in with it.  Aim at earth only, and you will get neither.

The ones, of course, that teach us this so very well are the saints.  The saints are the ones who accomplished the most for this world by focusing mostly on the world to come.  They sought first, and vigorously, the Kingdom of God, and they were—of all people—truly happy and fruitful.

One of the most beloved saints in the Catholic Church, and a saint revered in circles well outside the Catholic faith, is St. Francis of Assisi.  Everyone loves St. Francis!  And while most people are familiar with Francis’ humility and profound love for the natural world, many would be surprised by what his biographers describe as "the young man's waywardness... of which, later on, he was so bitterly to reproach himself with having 'lived in sin'" (Omer Englebert, St. Francis of Assisi: A Biography).  One of the earliest accounts of Francis’ life mentions that he “wasted his life up to his twenty-fifth year, surpassing his comrades in foolishness, and drawing them with him into vanity and evil” (Thomas of Celano). Francis was the son of a clothing merchant, Pietro Bernadone, a man of no small means.  Francis spent a lot of money on himself, eating and drinking, and even more money on the people around him (Francis was benevolent and generous even in his selfishness!).  But then, slowly, everything in his life began to change.

One of the first setbacks that Francis encountered came when he was captured and imprisoned in a battle with a nearby city.  The soldier’s life was not for him.  After that period in his life, he also endured a long illness that left him bedridden for weeks at a time.  He was completely dependent upon those around him.  Little by little, the light of God continued to break through into Francis’ life, and he became more and more open to the needs of those around him.  At one point, he was moved to generously give away large amounts of his father’s goods.  That brought things to a head with Pietro Bernadone.  The angry father demanded that Francis restore everything he had given away.  Appealing first to the local authorities, the case was eventually brought before the bishop, and there marked a turning point in Francis’ life.

Coming before his father, in a public square in Assisi, Francis brought everything he had taken from his father and laid it before him.  Then he took off his own clothes and gave them to Pietro Bernadone, as well.  Standing naked before all gathered in that place, he told him with kindness that he could have his name back, as well.  From now on he belonged to “Our Father who art in heaven.”  

Catholic author G.K. Chesterton, in his biography on St. Francis, points to humiliating moments like this and attributes them to the transformation of that great saint.  He explains that, when we are humiliated, our lives get turned upside down.  We have all had experiences like that before.  Our lives get turned upside down, there is an embarrassing period, perhaps, and then we “right ourselves up” again and move on.  We gain, hopefully, some new insight and it helps us to live better and with more humility.  But with Francis, Chesterton indicates, he was humiliated, and he humbled himself, so intensely and so frequently that he stayed that way!  Can you imagine, St. Francis of Assisi standing on his head!  Chesterton goes on:

“If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasize the idea of dependence… He would be thankful to God for not dropping the whole cosmos like a vast crystal to be shattered into falling stars.”

St. Francis saw the entire world, everything and everyone around him, as being totally dependent upon God.  He was completely free to love God and those around him, to Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33).” He sought nothing else, desired nothing else, and for that reason he possessed all things in Christ.  As Chesterton explains:

Perhaps St. Peter saw the world so, when he was crucified head downwards… men have said “Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.”  It was in a wholly happy and enthusiastic sense that St. Francis said, “Blessed is he who expecteth nothing, for he shall enjoy everything.” It was by this deliberate idea of starting from zero…that he did come to enjoy even earthly things as few people have enjoyed them. 

St. Francis of Assisi was totally dependent upon God, and for that reason he possessed everything that was necessary to make him completely happy and joyful in the Lord.  Do we?

How is God inviting us, this week, to stand on our heads and recognize that everything in this world is completely dependent upon God?  How is God calling us to see that our lives, our families, our prayer, our future, and everything around us, completely depends upon the one who loves us and died for our salvation?  

This week we ask for the grace to “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33),”  to aim at heaven, and to have earth thrown in with it.