Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Voice of the Lord

(Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on January 28, 2018 at St. Paul Church in Cranston, R.I.; See Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 95 and Mark 1: 21-28)

One of the most successful and popular Christian writers of the last century is the English author, C.S. Lewis.  A professor at Oxford and Cambridge, and vowed atheist for years, Lewis eventually converted to the Christian faith in is early thirties.  He is probably best known for his book series, The Chronicles of Narnia.  Consisting in seven books altogether, The Chronicles of Narnia has sold over 10 million copies and entertained children and adults for decades.  

While the genre of The Chronicles of Narnia is fantasy fiction, the story is itself is a Christian allegory.  Lewis shares the compelling story of our salvation through the various characters and events that make up the books.  The one character that remains constant throughout all seven books is Aslan, the Lion.  He represents Jesus Christ, and convincingly embodies the sense of awe, attraction and inspiration found frequently in the Gospels. 

You may be familiar with the first book to be made into a full-length feature film: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  That intriguing tale begins with three young children, playing a game of hide-and-seek.  Lucy finds the ultimate hiding place, a large closet or wardrobe, where she climbs in and shuts the door behind her.  Strategically shuffling to the back of that small space, she unwittingly falls out the back of the wardrobe, and into an entirely different world!  She has entered Narnia, a mystical land that defies the imagination.  There are huge mountain ranges off in the distance; dense forests, with rivers slicing through the middle of them; and there, in the middle of this magical realm, is an item completely out of place: a lamp post.

Soon Lucy is joined by her brother and sister, and together they go on exciting adventures together.  They meet all kinds of strange creatures, some good and some bad.  They will be challenged to grow in friendship and in virtue.  They meet Aslan, the Lion, and fight together against the evil witch for the future of this new and amazing world.

After writing several successful books in the Narnia series, Lewis realized that he never adequately explained how Narnia originally came to be.  He decided to go back and write a first novel, by way of introduction, and he called it, The Magician’s Nephew.  As one might suppose, two children are the heroes of that book.  Early on, they find themselves transported to a strange, empty land.  Their uncle has reluctantly joined them, and so has the evil witch; she never misses an opportunity for mischief.   The place in which they find themselves is completely dark; they can see nothing.  

Suddenly a voice breaks through the silence, one solitary note in a vast and empty world.  The children are immediately touched by the beauty of that sound.  A moment later, and thousands of voices join together, creating a symphony of melodious music.  The children quickly notice, high above them, that the sky is completely filled with stars.  Then the first voice changes, and breaks into another beautiful and captivating note; with that, a huge sun appears in the sky.  In the light, they can now see that this beautiful and amazing voice belongs to Aslan.  He is literally singing Narnia in to being.

You remember the Book of Genesis, when God created the world.  The author of Genesis does not tell us that God made the world by hand.  No, He spoke the world into existence.  The phrase, “Then God said . . .” comes up over and over again:

Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light . . . Then God said: Let the earth bring forth vegetation: every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it.  And so it happened . . . Then God said: Let there be lights in the dome of the sky, to separate day from night . . .
—Genesis 1:1-14

In the same way, Aslan creates the world of Narnia, but by singing.  The reactions to this song, however, are indeed varied.  The children are enchanted by the music and sense an immediate attraction to the lion.  They long to be closer to him, even if they feel a sense of fear and awe.  The uncle, on the other hand, mutters that he wishes he were a younger man, and that he had a gun, so he could shoot it!  Now that is a rather negative response to the creator!  

The witch’s reaction is worse still.  She is holding an iron rod that she has brandished as a weapon from a previous world.  She cocks it back with a stealthy hand, and whips it at the lion’s head!  The rod hits him square between the eyes, and bounces clean off.  He goes right on singing, as if nothing has happened!  The children stand in wonder as they watch grass sprouting up before them, saplings turning into huge forests before their eyes, and then the iron rod itself begins to grow!  As if rooted in that place, it sprouts up well above their heads and becomes . . . a lamp post.  It will be one of the first things Lucy sees, several books later, when she enters Narnia through the wardrobe.

Our readings for this Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time are about the voice of the Lord.  Just as there were different reactions and responses to the voice of Aslan in the Land of Narnia, even so with the voice of the Lord in our readings.  In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the people of their own reaction following their first encounter with the voice of the Lord at Mount Horeb:

You said, “Let us not again hear the voice of the Lord, our God, nor see this great fire any more, lest we die.”
—Deuteronomy 18:16

Therefore, the Lord will grant their request; He promises to raise up a prophet, like Moses, who will speak the words of God to them and make God’s commandments known.  That prophet is none other than Jesus Christ, who stands in the synagogue in Capernaum this morning and teaches the people.  St. Mark recounts the details of their reaction:

The people were ASTONISHED at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.
—Mark 1:22

Immediately there appears a man with an unclean spirit, possessed by a demon, challenging Jesus.  The voice of the Lord is then heard a second time, no longer teaching now, but commanding the demon: “Quiet!  Come out of him!”  Again, Mark gives us the people’s response:

All were AMAZED and asked one another, “What is this?  A new teaching with authority.  He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”
—Mark 1:27

They were astonished; they were amazed.  They recognized clearly that the voice of the Lord was one of power, a voice of authority.  Do we?

We recited together, over and over again, in our Responsorial Psalm this morning:

If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.

But none of us needs to be convinced of the fact that many people in the world we live in have grown DEAF to the voice of God!  So many people in our secularized world today are not tuning in to that voice, they are not listening to what God is saying when it comes to faith, relationships, daily living and eternal life.   We cannot follow in that same direction.  If TODAY you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.

And we stand to lose so very much if we do not listen to that voice, because what God has to say to us is awe-inspiring and wonderful.  He is way more stimulating and interesting than C.S. Lewis!  What God’s voice has to say is no less “astonishing” and “amazing” today as it was in that synagogue in Capernaum 2,000 years ago.  I would suggest three clear ways that God’s voice speaks to us today, if we are tuned in, and if we are listening.
The first and obvious way God speaks to us TODAY is through His word, in Sacred Scripture.  The words that we listen to each weekend, these readings that come to us across the centuries and that have sustained the people of God through countless changes and challenges, these are not the words of man.  Sacred Scripture is the word of God!  God has so much to say to us when we prayerfully consider and mediate on the words of the Bible.  God comforts and consoles us, over and over again, reassuring us: I love you; I forgive you; I will never abandon you; you are mine; I have a plan for your life in this world; I will lead you to eternal life with me.  We really, really need to hear that voice, often, if we are going to live well and love well in the world today.

There is a compelling account given in St. John’s Gospel, when Jesus is teaching the people about Himself in the Eucharist.  He says, “I am the bread of life . . . unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you . . .” (see John 6: 22-59).  The people listening that day were very put off by those words!  In fact, many of the disciples who had followed him to that point suddenly turned away, complaining, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John :60).  Jesus did nothing whatsoever to stop them.  Turning to the twelve apostles, though, He asks if they will also leave.  St. Peter speaks for them all, stating:

Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words to eternal life.
—John 6:68

Do we believe that?  Do we spend time with the word of God, meditating on Sacred Scripture so that we can hear the voice of the Lord?  If we were to read and pray over even one chapter from the New Testament each day, from the Gospel of St. Matthew to the Book of Revelation, in the course of several months it would totally transform our spiritual lives.  What are we waiting for?  If TODAY you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.

Secondly, we listen to the voice of the Lord when He speaks to us in the Sacraments He gave us.  Today He speaks to us from this sacred altar, saying: “This is my body . . . this is the chalice of my blood.”  God speaks to us directly when we hear Him in the Sacraments.  How God longs to speak to us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation!  How much God longs for us to hear His voice when He says to us: “I absolve you of your sins.”  How few, though, how very, very few people today make themselves available and disposed to hear those awesome and beautiful words!  What are we waiting for?  If TODAY you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.

Finally, we listen to the voice of the Lord when he speaks to us in the silence of daily prayer.  God does hear us when we pray, and He does speak to us, though differently than we speak to each other.  We do not hear the voice of God in prayer the way we hear the characters in a movie or on television.  We do not hear the voice of God in prayer the way we listen to our favorite songs on iTunes.  The great saints and teachers of the faith say that God speaks in silences.  If we want to hear Him, we have to shut off the TV, power down, and get quiet.  We have to be still, and set aside time for prayer with Him each day.  God wants to speak to us today, everyday.  If TODAY you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.

May we truly listen well in this coming week to the voice of God, who makes Himself known to all seek Him.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Time Travel and Eternal Life

The Persistence of Memory (1931), by Salvador Dali

(Third Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on January 20, 2018 at Holy Family Church in Taunton, MA. and January 21, 2018 at St. Paul Church in Cranston, R.I.; See Jonah 3:1-10 and Mark 1: 14-20)

How good are you at movie trivia?  I would like to list several movies, and let’s see if you can guess what they all have in common.  We’ll begin with the 1980s, and go forward.  

Back to the Future
Field of Dreams
Groundhog Day
Midnight in Paris
The Time Traveler’s Wife

Now, if you had not guessed it already, that last one should have given it away.  They all have to do with time travel.  If you do a web search for “time travel in works of fiction,” you will find hundreds of books, films and TV shows that follow that theme.  Our culture is fascinated with time travel, and for good reason.  It is an absolutely fascinating topic.  What could be more exciting than traveling back in time and entering events we have only read about?  It is an enchanting concept.  The problem, of course, is that it’s not true!

You cannot go back in time and change a single thing about your life.  You could never travel into the future, and see what is there, in order to come back and change something in the here-and-now.  No, we live in the present.  This time—here, now—is reality for us, and only in these present choices and decisions can we chart a course for our lives.  

If we look at the City of Nineveh, in their present moment in our First Reading, we can see that time is running OUT!  The clock is ticking for that city, and the future does not look good.  “Forty days more,” Jonah announces to them, “and Nineveh shall be destroyed (Jonah 3:4).”  Can you imagine if that was God’s message for us this weekend!  

Well, before we consider that God has judged them too harshly, we should realize that the City of Nineveh was renowned for its cruelty, wickedness and barbarism in the time of Jonah.  The prophet, in fact, is reluctant to go there with God’s message, not because he is afraid that the city will be destroyed, but because he is afraid it won’t be!  He fears that the Ninevites will heed God’s message and God will spare them.

As we discover in that reading, Jonah has every reason to fear.  In fact, God sends him there precisely to save the city, and to give the Ninevites another chance.  He gets only one-day’s journey into the city and the people immediately repent.  They put on sackcloth as an outward sign of their regret and sorrow, and God responds just as quickly:

When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.
—Jonah 3:10

God offered them a special moment of grace, a time to reconsider their situation and to make a change.  He specifically sent Jonah at precisely that time in their lives as an opportunity for mercy.  In the Bible, there is a name for that moment God provides.  It is called “kairos.”  Kairos is one of two Greek words in the Bible for time.  It means “an appointed time,” or an “opportune moment.”  

The other Greek word for time in the Bible is “chronos.”  It is where we get the word "chronological."  Jonah announces, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed” . . . that’s chronos.  The hands that move inevitably across the face of a clock, minute by minute and hour by hour; that’s chronos.  The average life-expectancy for a man or woman in the United States is 80 years.  For many of us, perhaps it will be less than 80.  That is chronos.  There is nothing you can do to change or alter chronos.  

Kairos is different.

Kairos is God’s time.  Kairos is a moment God chooses, when He intervenes in time and gives us another chance and a new beginning.  In the Gospel, the eternal God steps into time in the person of Jesus Christ.  He walks into Galilee in our Gospel this weekend and announces this message:

This is the time of fulfillment.  The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent, and believe in the gospel.
—Mark 1:15

The word for time that St. Mark uses when he relates Jesus’ message is kairos.  It is the opportune moment, the appointed time for God to have mercy.  It is here.  Now.

“Repent,” Jesus exhorts, “and believe in the Gospel.”

That word, “repent,” means much more than morality.  Certainly, it begins with the moral life, or at least it did for the Ninevites.  If there is anything in our past that has damaged or harmed our relationship with God, then we have to repent of that and ask for forgiveness.  In particular, if we have committed any serious or grave sins (what the Church’s tradition refers to as “mortal sin,” because it has the power to destroy the life of grace we received at baptism), then we can confess those sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. God restores sanctifying grace in our souls.  What an amazing gift!  If we have harmed our relationship with those around us by the choices we have made, or the things we have done; if we have hurt ourselves in some way; if we have sinned.  These can all be forgiven as we turn back, once again, to God.  
But repentance means much more than that.  It means to see God in a new way, to see those around us, and even the world we live in, differently.  We begin to see things the way God sees them.  We begin to make God the center of our lives.  If there is anything, or anyone, in our lives at the center, besides God, then we will never be really happy or fulfilled in this life.  Once we begin to make God central, though, everything changes.  

Christ walks into the lives of those four Apostles this weekend and invites them to a life of discipleship, a vocation entirely focused on Him.  They were not doing anything wrong whatsoever.  They were fishing.  Nonetheless, He invites them to follow Him, and their lives are completely changed.  It was a kairos moment, an offer of grace, an opportune moment.  Christ would use them to change the course of human history.  That’s kairos, and God still does that!  

But God’s time for us will not last forever.  St. Paul teaches us, in our Second Reading this weekend, that there is a great sense of urgency when it comes to kairos.  He says:

I urge you, brothers and sisters, the time (kairos) is running out.
—1 Corinthians 7:29

“Seventy is the sum of our years,” the Psalmist tells us, “or eighty, if we are strong; most of them are toil and sorrow; they pass quickly, and we are gone” (Psalm 90:10).

We will not always have the opportunity to say yes to God.  There will not always be opportunities for us to change and to make God the center of our lives. This moment may be all we have. Today may be the moment appointed by God for us to turn to Him and be healed.  There is a great urgency, that we respond to the God who so lovingly offers Himself to us in time.  Are we doing that?  

I would like to conclude with a small excerpt from one of the greatest saints in the Church to ever reflect on the meaning of time, St. Augustine.  He was a man who missed God many, many times in his life, but God never gave up on him.  He reflects, in his Confessions, on those moments in his life where he failed to recognize God.   But then he goes on to describe that kairos moment, when God finally broke through:

“Late have I loved you, beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you.  You were within, and I was in the external world and sought you there . . . You were with me, and I was not with you . . . You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness . . . You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.”

 That is kairos.  God is constantly calling and crying out to us, seeking to shatter our deafness and heal us of our blindness.  If we are willing to respond and place Him at the center of our lives, we will not be able to travel through time.  But we will step into eternity with God here in this life, and He will lead us to eternal life in the world to come.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Star Wars and the Magi

(Solemnity of the Epiphany-Year B; This homily was given on January 7, 2018 at St. Paul in Cranston, R.I.; See Matthew 2:1-12)

I had the opportunity recently to see the latest Star Wars movie, “The Last Jedi.”  One of the main protagonists of the film, and the one for whom its title presumably gets its name, is Luke Skywalker.  Of all the characters in the Star Wars saga, Luke Skywalker is likely the one most of us can identify with.  He is not like Ben “Obi-Wan” Kenobi, who always acts prudentially and consistently speaks from a place of profound wisdom.  Luke is not like Darth Vader, who regularly embraces the “dark side” and attempts to manipulate and destroy his enemies by all means possible.   No, like us, Luke is much more complex.  He must overcome many fears and difficulties that present themselves before him; he will need to overcome numerous obstacles along the way.   He is a farm boy from Tatooine (which might as well be Oklahoma, as far as we are concerned), but over the course of time and through many challenges, he becomes a Jedi Master and a force for good in a galaxy threatened by evil.  He truly becomes a great hero.

But after following his adventures through several classic films from 1977 to 1983, we entirely lose track of Luke Skywalker.  It is only in the two most recent films, 2015’s “The Force Awakens” and now “The Last Jedi,” that we discover where he has been.  It is not the case that Luke has gone over to the “dark side” and is practicing great evil.  He has simply withdrawn, choosing to no longer practice his art; he has become convinced that he cannot stand against such great evil and simply disengages from a seemingly futile and fruitless endeavor.  The dramatic tension of “The Last Jedi,” consists in the good people of the Resistance trying to draw Luke Skywalker back in.

I would suggest that our culture in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, is replete with “Luke Skywalkers.”  So many good men and women today have chosen to no longer practice their Catholic faith.  And let’s be honest, we have been called to something far greater than the role of Jedi Master.  God does not give us a light saber, but the light of Jesus Christ in the waters of baptism.  We are called to be children of God, bearing Jesus Christ and bringing Him to a world threatened by darkness.  To withdraw from so great a responsibility, from so noble a call, represents a tragic failure of epic proportions.  

The latest book by Bishop Robert Barron, “To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age,” gives the astounding figure that close to one-third of Americans claim to have been raised Roman Catholic, but 41% of them no longer identify themselves with the Catholic faith.  It is not the case that they have gone over to the “dark side” or that they are necessarily atheists or anti-Catholic.  They simply no longer orient their lives according to the core principles and teachings of the Catholic faith.  The foundation of that faith, of course, is found in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.   Our Lord calls us, in baptism, to a life of holiness.  Following Him, we possess the joy and fulfillment that we were always created for.  

This Epiphany Weekend, we pray for all those that we know and love who have left the practice of their Catholic faith.  We pray for them, and for ourselves, that all the baptized will find in Christ that fire of love and reigniting of faith that alone fills our life’s journey with passion and purpose.  

The Gospel we listen to this weekend, and that dramatic story of the Magi, give us a glimpse of what that journey might look like.  We are told by St. Matthew that they discerned the coming of the Messiah and followed a star that lead them as far as Jerusalem.  But suddenly they became lost.  Of course, we know this to be true because they did something that men never do, ever: they asked for directions!   They went to Herod, who assembled the chief priests and scribes, and the Magi were directed towards Bethlehem.  As they made their way towards the Child Jesus, Matthew describes their joy when the star suddenly reappeared:

And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.  They were overjoyed at seeing the star.
—Matthew 2:9-10

They were overjoyed!  They were elated!  That initial faith and spark of hope was reignited within them.  They went to where the Child was and worshipped Him.  

Where will we find that star in our lives this coming week?  Where will God call our attention to Jesus Christ and lead us closer and closer to Him?  In Sacred Scripture, certainly.  God speaks to us in His word and sets our hearts on fire with the message of the Gospel (see Luke 24:32).  Here in the Eucharist God draws us closer to, indeed directly into, the flame!  In so many ways in our daily lives God lights the way for us to find Jesus Christ and to reorient our lives to Him.  Are we awake and alert to recognize these stars?  They have the power to change and transform our lives, if we allow it.  The Magi in the Gospel teach us at least that much.  They followed the star, they met Jesus Christ, and their lives were never the same again.  They worshipped Him and began to live an entirely different way of life.  St. Matthew tells us:

Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.
—Matthew 2:12

They went home by a different path, geographically; God was protecting the Child and His mother, and St. Joseph, for sure.  But the Fathers of the Church teach us that this Gospel verse is also to be understood spiritually.  In other words, once we meet Jesus Christ, we never walk the same way again.  We no longer act the same way, we no longer follow the same desires.  The sins that we once reveled in now weigh us down and fill our souls with sorrow.  The virtues that we never dared to pursue now attract us and bring us deep satisfaction, even if we have not yet fully realized them in our daily lives.  Having met Christ, we are different, changed, transformed.  May we embrace that epic journey in this New Year, and fulfill our destiny in the Church of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Blessed Vigilance, Eternal Peace

(First Sunday of Advent-Year B; This homily was given on December 3, 2017 at St. Rocco Church in Johnston, R.I.; See Isaiah 63:16 to 64:7 and Mark 13:33-37)

A few weeks ago, I had the honor of meeting a remarkable Jewish woman who spoke to me about her experience as a holocaust survivor.  The horrors that her family went through were unthinkable, but she preserved her faith and even now continues to serve those around her with generosity and love.  Her story is one that has been told thousands of times over, but could never be told enough.  The reason why there is a Holocaust Museum in Auschwitz-Birkenau, why there is Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, is so that the world will never forget what happened.  Remembering the Holocaust, the world commits itself to never letting it happen again.

Less than five years after the end of the Second World War, however, a new threat to world peace was already beginning to loom on the horizon.   It was the beginning the Cold War.  At that time, 12 nations (including the United States) formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO.  Today, 29 nations comprise its membership.  One of the foundational principles of NATO is that an attack on any individual member state is considered an attack on them all (article 5).  The motto for its military command headquarters, located in Mons, Belgium, is:  Vigilia Pretium Libertatis (the price of freedom is vigilance).  There is a wonderful and vibrant Catholic community at the headquarters, and their prayers are no doubt a part of that vigilance.

Being vigilant and watchful for the threats to peace is the best way to maintain peace and freedom.  The greatest solution to war, in other words, is to avoid it all together!  That system of collective defense has proven remarkably effective in that, in almost seventy years of its existence, article 5 of NATO has been invoked only once: September 11, 2001, when the United States was attacked by terrorists claiming thousands of innocent lives.  May it please God that article 5 never be invoked again, and may all the nations of the world be ever vigilant for the cause of peace.

In the Gospel for this weekend, Jesus Christ is calling us to vigilance in a spiritual battle that has eternal ramifications.  Over and over again, in that brief passage, Jesus exhorts the disciples:

Be watchful!  Be alert! You do not know when the time will come. . . Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming . . . What I say to you, I say to all: “Watch!”
—Mark 13: 33, 35 and 37

Vigilance in the spiritual life allows us to encounter God and to avoid the complacency that draws us into the slavery of sin.  Being watchful and waiting in eager expectation for Christ enables us to be totally free and joyful as we wait for an eternal life with Him.  Vigilia pretium libertatis.  Lacking vigilance, we risk losing everything because we risk missing the God who comes into our world searching for us (see Luke 19:10).

Every year, as we begin the Advent Season, we hear from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah and of that spiritual struggle of the people of Israel.  They have not been attentive to the presence and the advent of God, and as a result they are held captive in Babylon.  Isaiah cries out this morning:

Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?
—Isaiah 63:17
The result of their infidelity to the covenant with God has been devastating; they have hardened their hearts to His voice and become separated from Him.  They cry out in their exile, seeking the peace and freedom they were created for.  As we hear in the words of that hauntingly beautiful hymn every Advent:

O come O come Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.

In great desperation, Isaiah prays: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you . . .” (Isaiah 64:1).

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down . . . 

What we celebrate in the miracle of Christmas is that this prayer of Isaiah has been answered!  God literally rent the heavens and came down to the earth in the child born in Bethlehem.  God became man and set us free from sin and death by dying for us on the cross.  He rose from the dead and has the power to give us new life in the Holy Spirit, poured out for us in the Sacrament of Baptism.  God did “rend the heavens,” He did come down into this world . . . but so many people missed Him, because they were not vigilant.  They were not watching for God.  

This Advent, will we be watching?  Will we be vigilant?

At the heart of the Church’s message for Advent is observance of the first coming of Christ with great solemnity and devotion so that we may increase all the more our desire to see Him when He comes again (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, #524).  We who have been baptized into Christ are called to great freedom, but the full exercise of that freedom comes at a price: vigilance in our relationship with God and attention to His voice in our lives.  What a beautiful price to pay!

The 12th century monk, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, wrote about the visible nature of the two advents.  When Christ came as a child, we could see Him clearly.  The shepherds followed the instructions of the angels, the Magi followed the stars, and they saw the child in the manger; when He preached the Gospel in the synagogues people heard Him, and His crucifixion was a public event.  Some even saw Him after the resurrection.  When He comes again, He will be even more visible!  Jesus describes His second coming in the clearest of terms: “For as lighting comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man” (Matthew 24:27).  

But there is a third advent, writes St. Bernard, a third coming, which is much subtler.  It is not as obvious and could easily go unnoticed.  It is the coming of Christ into our daily lives.  He states, “Because this coming lies between the other two, it is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last” (St. Bernard of Clairvaux).  Are we awake and alert on that road?

Christ comes to us in our neighbor, as we learned rather dramatically in the Gospel last weekend (“Whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me”).  He comes to us in the Sacraments of the Church, as He does this morning in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist or in the mercy we receive in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  He comes to us in those moments that we wait for Him in the silence and seek to listen to Him in prayer.  But He cannot come to us in any of these ways if we are not vigilant, if we are not watching and waiting for Him.

As we begin this Advent Season we seek the vigilance that will allow us to be aware of all the many ways God enters our lives as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ.  In our watching and waiting for Him, may we truly experience the fullness of that freedom and joy that Christ died to give us, and that He comes to bring us eternally when He comes again.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Unbound and Unbinding

Portal of Judgment, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris

(Solemnity of Christ the King-Year A; This homily was given on November 26, 2017 at St. Paul Church in Cranston, R.I.; See Matthew 25:31-46)

There is a church in the north of Belgium, in the enchanting town of Bruges, named the Basilica of the Holy Blood.  It purports to have a vial of the blood of Jesus Christ, obtained from a cloth used by Joseph of Arimathea when the body of Christ was being prepared for burial.   The citizens of Bruges organize a procession with the Holy Blood every year, and the basilica itself wonderfully celebrates the passion of Jesus Christ.  
In the Lower Basilica, there is a unique statue of Christ in the moments leading up to the crucifixion.  Jesus is seated, with a crown not of gold but of thorns on His head, and His hands are bound with a thick rope.  His face, however, is completely serene and regal. That statue clearly communicates what we believe about the passion.  Christ is not bound out of weakness, but in great strength He willingly surrenders Himself into the hands of men.  His being bound is the act of love that sets us free, His death and resurrection is what gives us forgiveness and eternal life.  Isaiah the Prophet, in his anticipation of Christ as the suffering servant, explains it beautifully:

But he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity.  He bore the punishment that makes us whole, by his wounds we were healed.
—Isaiah 53:5

Because Jesus Christ was bound, we were set free.

In his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (which was given exactly 4 years ago on the Feast of Christ the King), Pope Francis relates how the Holy Spirit is still at work in the lives of all people, helping to unbind them from the complications and complexities of daily life.  He explains how we participate in that work of unbinding those around us through our cooperation with God in evangelization:

“To believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in everyone means realizing that he seeks to penetrate every human situation and all social bonds: ‘The Holy Spirit can be said to possess an infinite creativity, proper to the divine mind, which knows how to loosen the knots of human affairs, even the most complex and inscrutable’.  Evangelization is meant to cooperate with this liberating work of the Spirit.”
—Evangelii Gaudium, # 178

We encounter Christ, who gives us true freedom and new life.  We are then motivated to evangelize, allowing the Holy Spirit to “loosen the knots” of others.  This is the great legacy of the Church, and we will be judged as to how well or how poorly we cooperate in this magnificent work.  The Gospel this weekend, St. Matthew’s description of the Last Judgment, reminds us that the ones who are bound by poverty, thirst, hunger, loneliness, and whatever social bonds that oppress them, are ultimately Christ in a distressing disguise (to use a favorite phrase of St. Mother Theresa of Calcutta).  

The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris has a captivating depiction of this scene from St. Matthew’s Gospel.  The central doorway, containing the “Portal of the Last Judgement,” shows Christ the King, seated on His royal throne.  Below Him is St. Michael the Archangel, weighing the lives of all in the balance.  Those who have responded well to Christ and have been judged worthy of eternal life are on Christ’s right, ready to join the saints and angels forever.  Those found wanting, however, are lined up on His left.  They are being corralled by two demons, one on each end of the file, holding a rope that guides the condemned to their demise.  The rope, however, is not tied to any one of them.  It rests by their side, as if they could simply step over it, or slip under the rope at any minute and return to Jesus Christ.  

The point the sculptor wanted to make is that these souls were perfectly free all throughout their lives to answer the call of God.  They were always free to recognize Him in need, and do something to respond to their neighbor, but they freely chose not to do so.  To be condemned and separated from Christ forever is not a punishment over which we have no control; it is an affirmation of our own freedom, the tragic choice of not recognizing and responding to the offer of life and free gift of Jesus Christ.  

Pope Francis explains Matthew’s Last Judgment, and similar passages, by stating:

“What these passages make clear is the absolute priority of ‘going forth from ourselves towards our brothers and sisters’ as one of the two great commandments which ground every moral norm and as the clearest sign for discerning spiritual growth in response to God’s completely free gift.”
—Evangelii Gaudium, # 179

God freely choses to forgive our sins and welcomes us into friendship with Himself.  He was bound and suffered death that we might be set free and enter eternal life.  But, our Holy Father reminds us, there is an “absolute priority” for us, in having received so great a gift, to reach out to those around us in the name of Jesus Christ.   

From the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has called the Church to recognize and reach out to those “on the peripheries,” those who find themselves on the outside.  As he describes in Evangelii Gaudium, “Our faith in Christ, who became poor, and was always close to the poor and the outcast, is the basis of our concern for the integral development of society’s most neglected members” (Evangelii Gaudium, # 186).   We are called to identify and assist those on the peripheries, and according to our fidelity in this regard, we will be judged.

In conclusion, we can consider not only others on the periphery, but can ask if, perhaps, we ourselves sometimes become separated from Christ and His Church.  Do we ever place ourselves on the periphery by the choices that we make?  It can happen that, through the misuse of our own freedom, we choose to reject the sanctifying grace of God.   Our faith clearly teaches that serious or grave sin, chosen freely and with understanding, could separate us from God and cause us to lose the sanctifying grace that He has given us.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:

If [mortal sin] is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back.
—CCC, # 1861 

Therefore, with one act of faith and an open heart in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, in a moment, we can be completely reconciled to God!  What a remarkable gift, to simply come before God in the sacrament He instituted and confess to the priest, “Bless me, father, for I have sinned, it has been 10 years since my last confession…” or “it has been 2 weeks since my last confession…” or whatever amount of time … “and I am sorry for my sins…”  God grants us forgiveness, sanctifying grace, the restoration of His life within us, and then we are totally free to begin again that great work of unbinding those around us and being effective evangelists for Jesus Christ.

Wherever we find ourselves this weekend, as we near the end of the Liturgical Year and prepare for the coming of Christ into our lives, we ask for the openness to receive, and respond well to, the amazing grace of God.  May we spend our entire lives immersed in that grace, and at the end of this life, may we hear those beautiful words of Christ from our Gospel this morning:

Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
—Matthew 25:34