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

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Dinner with a Perfect Savior

The Last Supper by Juan de Juanes (1510-1579)

(Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on November 19, 2017 at the Chapel of St. John in Meriden, CT.; See Matthew 25:14-30)

We are drawing close the end of the Liturgical Year, those last few weeks before we begin a new season in Advent.  Our readings, and particularly the Gospels, have been focused on the second coming of Christ.  We have heard about the coming of the Bridegroom, about wedding banquets, people entering and others being locked outside.  Traditionally, this is the time of the year when the Church meditates on the four “last things”: death, judgment, heaven and hell. Typically, those are not things that come up at the average dinner among friends . . .

Unless, of course, you live in Belgium!  That is because the Dutch word for requesting “the bill” is nothing short of apocalyptic; the word for settling accounts is: De Rekening! Yes, you have enjoyed your meal, there has been some good wine, and maybe a little dessert, but now comes . . . The Reckoning!

That word, in fact, comes up in our Gospel this morning.  Jesus, in the parable of the talents, tells us about the three servants entrusted with their master’s property.  He then says:

After a long time the master of those servants came back and settled accounts with them.
—Matthew 25:19
That phrase, settled accounts with them,” in the Dutch Bible, reads “en hield rekening met hen.”  There was a “Reckoning.”  He gave them the bill!  But there is every indication in our Gospel this morning that an encounter with Christ, now and at the judgment, need not be frightening.  In fact, it could be something as enjoyable and intimate as dinner with a friend.

When I was in my first parish assignment, one of the parishioners shared a book with me that I cautiously agreed to read.   The title was, “Dinner with a Perfect Stranger,” by David Gregory, and it was a story about a cynical, skeptical businessman who receives a dinner invitation from Jesus.  Truth be told, I was skeptical about reading the book!  It sounded kind of hokey.   In fact, though, it was really well done.  At first the main character is suspicious and convinced that his friends have set him up for this mysterious encounter.  As the story continues, he discovers that this stranger knows a lot more about his life that anyone possibly could, and before long the meal becomes much more personal and revealing than he ever expected.

If we look at the parable of the talents this morning, they reveal to us three ways that an encounter with Jesus Christ at the final judgment could be as intimate as dinner with a friend who loves us.
Firstly, we discover in the parable that the Master knows these servants intimately.  Jesus says that the Master:

Called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them.  To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one—to each according to his ability.
Matthew 25:14-15  

To each according to his ability.  This is a Master who knows his servants well.   He knows their strengths and weaknesses, what they can do and what they can’t.  He gives them exactly what they need and exactly what they can handle, nothing more and nothing less.  Even so with us; God knows and loves us intimately.  St. Augustine says that God is intimior intimo meo—that He is closer, more intimate to me, than I am to myself (Book 3, Chapter 6 of The Confessions).  However deeply we known and understand our hopes, our desires, our fears, and the motivations in our lives, God knows and understands those things much more deeply.  He knows and loves us far more than we could ever think or even imagine (see Ephesians 3:20).   

Secondly, the parable of the talents reveals God’s tremendous trust in giving us the gifts of life and faith.  The Master in the parable does not micromanage the servants or give them a detailed list of how they should invest those talents.  He allows them to operate freely and with great initiative.  In fact, that becomes the undoing of the third servant, who will not use his freedom and instead buries his talent in the ground.  God wants us to be free!  He wants us to live our lives for Him and to take chances and risks for love and for relationships that will bring an increase of faith and virtue into this world.  Are we doing that?  Are we free?  Are we totally surrendered to Jesus Christ so that He can guide us in our vocation to the fruitfulness of virtue and freedom that has transformed souls and civilizations for centuries?

Finally, this weekend, we not only find in Jesus an intimate friend and one who willingly trusts us with the gifts of life and faith, but also a God who has no ulterior motives when He calls us to follow Him.  Those servants who responded with fidelity to what their Master entrusted to them discover that he has only one goal in mind: Unending joy!

Well done, my good and faithful servant.  Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities.  Come, share your master's joy.
—Matthew 25:21&23

The reason why he entrusted the talents to them in the first place, the driving force behind his incredible trust in these servants, was so that—in the end—they might share in their master’s joy.  That is all God wants for us; he does not have any other plan; there is no ulterior motive.  God simply gives us life and faith and He trusts us to use those gifts, to live fully and totally according to His will so that we can become more and more like Him here on this earth and live forever with Him in the world to come; simply to share the Master’s joy.  What a remarkable friend, indeed!

But perhaps, you might say, the dinner analogy seems to go a little too far.  Do we really think that encountering God in this life and at the final judgment could be like an intimate dinner with a friend?  We can if we understand what we are doing here this morning, and what Christ instituted on the night before He died.

Jesus Christ freely gives His life for our salvation, offering His body and blood on the altar of the cross so that we can be forgiven and enter eternal life.  But on the night before He died, he chose to make that offering and sacrifice an everlasting memorial at the Last Supper, a meal that He greatly longed to celebrate with His disciples (Luke 22:15).  At that meal, He gave us Himself in His body and blood, so that we could encounter Him here, and down through the centuries, even until the end of time.  Here in the Eucharist, Christ knows us intimately.  He inspires us and motivates us to trust in Him and to live generously for the building up of His kingdom.  Ultimately, though, He draws us—even here, even now—into His joy, giving us His very life, so that we may enter into that joy for all eternity.

The God who comes to us here is the same God who we will stand before at the end of our lives and offer an account, a “reckoning.”  To stand before God in judgment is an awesome and overwhelming reality.  We strive daily to live our lives in such a way as to be found worthy and living in His sanctifying grace when that day arrives.  But all throughout this life we are invited to this amazing dinner with a perfect Savior, this encounter with Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist.   Here in this place God gives us all we need to respond well and live generously in this world, so that we may one day share forever in our Master’s joy. 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Love and Onions

(Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on October 29, 2017 at St. Paul Church in Cranston, R.I.; See Exodus 22:20-26 and Matthew 22:34-40)

One of the greatest reads of all time is the classic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Written by one of the world’s best story tellers, it explores the deepest recesses of the human heart, encompassing suffering, tragedy, sin, redemption and faith.  One of the main characters of the book is a young woman named Grushenka.   Vicious and manipulative with each new chapter, she is rather easy to despise.  Yet midway through the book, everything suddenly changes!
There is a scene where Grushenka encounters Alyosha, the central figure of the novel.  He is a young man preparing to become a monk.  Innocent, kind, and deeply compassionate, Alyosha is the Christ figure in The Brothers Karamazov.   Grushenka is intending to ruin him.  But having just learned of a tragic event in Alyosha’s life, she offers a spontaneous and heartfelt expression of sympathy.

It is a small spark, barely noticeable, but enough for Alyosha to fan into flame as he seizes the moment and begins to praise her.  He has seen something deep within her soul that not even she had been able to recognize: the capacity for generosity and selfless love.  She blushes with shame and immediately begins to protest, but Alyosha counters, “I’ve found a true sister; I have found a treasure—a loving heart.  She had pity on me just now . . .”   Grushenka, caught completely off guard, practically comes undone!
With great emotion and almost childlike simplicity, she says, “Though I am bad, I did give away an onion.”  One of the other characters is astounded.  An onion?  What is that supposed to mean?  Grushenka goes on to describe a story she was told as a little girl, and one she is now applying to herself.  

 The story is about a peasant woman who lived a very wicked life.  At the judgement she was condemned and thrown in the lake of fire.  Her guardian angel pleads on her behalf.  God asks if the woman has ever done anything good for anyone.  The angel relays how there was one time that a hungry beggar came to her, and the peasant woman dug up an onion from the garden and gave it to the beggar.  God commands the angel take the onion, hold it out to the woman, and pull her toward heaven.  If the onion holds, then she can come home to Paradise.  The angel obeys, and is able to pull that woman straight up.   The onion is holding, but suddenly the other sinners in the lake see what is happening; they grasp onto the woman’s legs, also seeking to be pulled out.  Remarkably, the onion still does not break!  But the peasant woman realizes what is happening and, kicking violently, she begins to cry out, “I’m to be pulled out, not you.  It’s my onion, not yours.”  At that moment, the onion breaks and she falls back into the lake of fire.  

The hope, of course, is that the story is just a story, and the life of Grushenka is far from over.  She still has time to make the right decisions and to hold on to that onion!  You can read the book yourself and see if she manages to do that.

In the Gospel for this weekend, Jesus Christ is holding out an onion for us.  It is the two-fold commandment to love God and love neighbor.  He says that “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:40).  The word Jesus uses for “depend on,” in the original Greek language, means literally to hang on, as if on a string.  Everything that God wanted to communicate through all the prophets of the Old Testament, all of the commandments of God, are dependent on this two-fold commandment of love.  But when Christ extends that commandment to us, He is not asking us to love in a void.  He is commanding that we love because He has loved us first (see 1 John 4:19).
The reading this weekend from the Book of Exodus gives us the proper context for understanding, and putting into practice, that two-fold commandment of love.  God exhorts His people:

You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.
—Exodus 22:20

God is reminding them that they were enslaved in the land of Egypt.  They were helpless and vulnerable and there was nothing they could do to change their lot.  They would certainly have died in that place, but He extended to them an onion.  He set them free and gave them hope; He led them through the desert and provided for them; He brought them into the Promised Land and gave them a new life.  Now, He is saying, do not forget all that you have been given!  They are called to recognize the weak and the vulnerable around them and to extend that same mercy and love.  They are called to give an onion, because they know what it is like to have been pulled up out of the deep.

How is Christ challenging us to make that same acknowledgement in our lives this week?  I would suggest a very practical way that we can recognize all that Christ has done for us and how we can help to extend His mercy and love to those around us.  It is the prayer of the Holy Rosary.

Bishop Tobin, in commemorating the 100th anniversary of the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima, has asked us to observe a “Year with Mary.”   When we pray the Rosary in this commemorative year, meditating on the mysteries of Christ—joyful, sorrowful, glorious and luminous—we come to see more fully and appreciate all that Christ has done for us.  We see His humble love in becoming a little child in a manger in Bethlehem; His generous and merciful love for us on the cross; His powerful love in and through us in the Resurrection and the sending forth of the Holy Spirit; His all-encompassing love for us in instituting the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist.  He has given us everything!  In meditating on these great mysteries and asking for Our Lady’s intercession in our lives and in the lives of those we love, we continue His saving work and extend it throughout time and space.  

There is a great story about the renovation of the Sistine Chapel back in the mid 1980s and into the 1990s.  As they were clearing off the dirt and dust from Michelangelo’s depiction of the Last Judgement, they became curious about the strings some of the angels were using to pull souls up to heaven.  Why not use something a little stronger, Michelangelo?!  But as they continued the restoration they eventually realized that the angels were not using strings to pull people up, but Rosaries!   Michelangelo painted that scene during the period of the Protestant Reformation, and in the face of opposition from those who tried to downplay the efficacy and power of the Holy Rosary.  But the Rosary is a source of strength, not contention.  When we pray the Rosary, we are not worshipping Mary.  No, we are asking for her powerful intercession in the very words that the Archangel Gabriel and Saint Elizabeth used to address the Blessed Mother in Sacred Scripture.  As we do so, we are mediating on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  That onion will hold!

Where is God calling us to go deeper in our spiritual lives this week, recognizing all that we have been given and all that He has done for us?  How can we continue to extend that love towards God and towards our neighbor through the Rosary and through all that we say and do each day?  We who have been loved so very much, must now love, in return: loving God with all our heart, soul and mind, and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. 

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Labor Day and Laborem Exercens

St. John Paul II (1920-2005)

(Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on September 3, 2017 at St. Paul Church in Cranston, R.I.; See Romans 12:1-2 and Matthew 16:21-27)

This long-weekend we celebrate Labor Day, the “unofficial” end of summer.  It might seem a bit odd, though, that we honor and give tribute to human labor and work by taking the day off!  Nonetheless, this observation of labor is one that is also deeply Catholic.

In 1981, St. John Paul II wrote his encyclical letter, On Human Work (Laborem Exercens).  It almost became the encyclical that was not, as he was shot and almost killed two days before the encyclical was to be released.  In the conclusion, he writes about how he made the final edits after recovering in the hospital.  The document was finally released on September 14, 1981, on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross.  In the encyclical, he explains how man and woman participate in God’s work of creation.  Made in the Imago Dei—the image of God—we share in and even develop and advance God’s activity as we continue to work in the world (Laborem Exercens, # 25).  True to the holiday we celebrate this weekend, though, St. John Paul II goes on to explain that we also imitate God when we rest!
God worked for six days when He created the world, and on the seventh day He rested.  It is not the case that God, after finishing the work of creation, was tired; it is not that God became exhausted and felt the need for a holiday.  No, of course not.  He was revealing to us what He intended for humanity.  We are the ones in need of rest.  We experience that great desire to reflect on all that has happened throughout the week and on all that God is doing.  We are the ones that need to unplug and recuperate with family and friends.  Above all, we observe this rest in which we worship God and insure that our lives and our work are totally and completely oriented to Him. Labor Day is a great opportunity for us to enter more deeply into God’s rest, and to make sure the we are prepared to keep Sunday sacred each and every week.

In the final section of the encyclical, St. John Paul II explains something that we all understand very well: that all work is toil.  In the Book of Genesis, immediately after the fall of Adam and Eve, God pronounces His sentence against them:

Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life . . . In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust and to dust you shall return.
—Genesis 3:17-19

Because of Original Sin, all work is toil; it requires effort and is experienced as resistance.  We all feel the weight of this reality.  More than toil and difficulty, St. John Paul II explains how the specter of death is introduced, as well.  We struggle and toil until death.  Yet it is not the will of God to leave us there. 

The great message of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ came into this world and took on our human nature, and even human work and toil, to redeem us.  Jesus Himself was a man of work, a craftsman like Joseph of Nazareth” (Laborem Exercens, #26).  He ultimately gave Himself over completely to the work of redemption, willing to sweat and toil to His death on the cross.  He was buried in the ground and then rose again from the dead.  He poured out the Holy Spirit on the Church and now gives us the grace and privilege of participating in His work of redeeming the world.  Whenever we give ourselves generously to toil and strive in faith, we participate in God’s work of redeeming the world: “Sweat and toil, which work necessarily involves in the present condition of the human race, present the Christian and everyone who is called to follow Christ with the possibility of sharing lovingly in the work that Christ came to do” (Laborem Exercens, #27). 

Certainly, this toil involves the efforts of those who work for a living, professionals, those who possess a specific vocation in the world.  However, it also includes men and women who work hard in the home to build a family; it involves students—in grammar school, those in high school, or those in college striving to earn a degree—all who give themselves generously to the toil and effort that can bring about great fruit.

In the Gospel this weekend, St. Peter clearly shows an aversion to the work of the redemption as Jesus describes it; his reaction to the work of God on Calvary is one of surprise and even disagreement.  He rebukes Christ: “God forbid, Lord!”  Peter cannot grasp the meaning of toil and suffering that will accomplish the salvation of the world.  He even tries to convince Jesus that this cannot be the way.  For his response, Peter receives the strongest of rebukes: “Get behind me, Satan!  You are an obstacle to me.  You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matthew 16:23).  There is no other way to redemption than the way that God has revealed in the person of Jesus Christ crucified.

Fortunately, Peter will learn that way intimately and grasp entirely the meaning of the cross and the work of redemption.  He will willingly be crucified himself, albeit upside down on the Vatican hill, acknowledging himself unworthy to die in exactly the same manner as Christ died. 

In conclusion, St. Paul teaches us all this weekend how to follow the way of the cross.  He shows us, in the Second Reading in the Letter to the Romans, how our toil and work can participate in Jesus’ work of redeeming the world.  Very much like Jesus, who chides St. Peter for seeing only the human perspective, St. Paul exhorts us:

Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.
—Romans 12:2

We cannot look at work and toil as an earthly struggle only, one that is separate from our spiritual lives.  The burdens of work and the resistance that we experience are often opportunities for us to participate more fully in Jesus and the work He accomplished on the cross.  St. Paul appeals to us all this weekend, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). 

As we offer tribute to labor this weekend, and as we prepare to enter into a whole new season with God, may we give ourselves generously and joyfully to the work that God has entrusted to us.  In sharing Christ’s cross here in this world, may we also enter more deeply into that eternal rest that God has prepared for us from all eternity (Hebrews 4:1-13).