Sunday, November 19, 2017
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.
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 the 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.
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 loved 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 motivation 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 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 goal in mind:
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.
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 it, 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
Sunday, July 16, 2017
(Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on July 15 & July 16, 2017 at St. Paul Church in Cranston, R.I., and July 16, 2017 at Immaculate Conception Church in Cranston, R.I.; See Matthew 13:1-23 and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2705-2708)
We are still in the beginning of the summer season and perhaps you have had the chance to check out some of the many different summer reading lists that are available online. From Amazon.com, to the New York Times and Oprah, there are so many lists, and a seemingly infinite number of books to choose from.
This weekend I would like to suggest the reading list recommended by the Catechism of the Catholic Church. There really is one, in fact! The Catechism lists several “titles” that we could consider this summer (see CCC, #2705). More than simply reading these works, however, the Catechism states that we should meditate on them. We should bring what we read into prayer and meditation before God, trying to understand what He is saying to us. Pertinent to our Gospel this weekend, the Catechism explains, “Christians owe it to themselves to develop the desire to meditate regularly, lest they come to resemble the three first kinds of soil in the parable of the sower” (CCC, #2707).
Therefore, before looking at the Catechism’s “reading list,” we could take a few moments to look at what the Church teaches about Christian meditation. To meditate is to pray in a way that actively seeks God. It is to cultivate the soil of our hearts, to use an image form the parable of the sower, in a way that allows us to hear Him more clearly. As the Catechism puts it: “The mind seeks to understand the why and the how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking” (CCC, #2705). When we meditate, we consider the deeper questions of the heart: “Why did God create me? Why am I here? What is the purpose or meaning of my life?” More importantly, we examine, “How can I know and respond to what God is asking of me?”
The Catechism goes on to express what every person of prayer knows from experience: “The required attentiveness is difficult to sustain” (CCC, #2705). Prayer is challenging! Meditation does not come easily for any one of us. The greatest of the saints, from the mystics to the scholars, teach us this important truth. The two necessary requirements, in fact, are time and sacrifice. We have to be willing to spend quality time alone with God, and we have to be willing to sacrifice even good things in order to grow in Christian prayer (remember Martha and her sister Mary, and that Mary chose “the better part”).
How much time, though, and how much sacrifice? Are five minutes at the beginning or the end of each day enough? One of the excellent teachers of prayer in our own time is the French priest, Fr. Jacques Philippe. Fr Jacques, in his book “Time for God,” writes that “Five minutes are not enough for God. Five minutes are what we give someone when we want to get rid of him or her.” God is not an insurance salesman or pesky telemarketer! Fr. Jacques suggests that fifteen minutes are the minimum that we should spend each day in prayer with God, and that we should be open to the possibility of an hour or more. He cautions against being too ambitious in this regard, lest we should become discouraged, but all of us can take fifteen minutes a day to seek God and try to understand what He is saying to us.
Now, with that said, we move on to our Summer Reading List! The first “book” on the list should not surprise any of us: “The Sacred Scriptures, particularly the Gospels” (CCC, #2705). So often our thoughts can be filled with doubt when we walk by sight and not by faith. We may wonder: Has God forgotten me? Is there a meaning or plan for my life? Does God really forgive the things I have done? What will happen to me and those that I love at the end of this life?
But when we take the time to meditate on the Gospels and the awesome, beautiful life of Jesus Christ, our faith reminds us of the promises of God. We recall that God so wanted to be among us that He was born into a human family. Could that same God forget us? Not a chance! We meditate on the cross and all that Christ endured, and there is no question about the forgiveness of sins; He died for us and for our salvation. Jesus Christ rose from the dead and promised eternal life for us and all the baptized, that we would rise with Him. Spending time meditating on these awesome truths each day will transform our lives and flood our soul with faith.
Secondly, the Catechism recommends that we “read” the book of sacred iconography. Perhaps more prevalent in the East than in this area of the world, icons can help us to encounter God in a new and living way. To pray the rosary before an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or to spend some time meditating before an icon of Christ or one of the saints, allows us to enter more deeply into the life of prayer. Icons are referred to as “windows to heaven.” When you look through a window, you can see the person on the other side; but that also implies that the person on the other side of the window can see you! When we meditate on the mysteries of Christ, or the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the virtues of the saints, before a sacred icon, the God of heaven gazes into our soul and helps us to grow in our spiritual lives.
Next on our list: spiritual books from the liturgy, from the Fathers of the Church and from the lives of the saints, along with all the great works of spirituality. There are so many classic works out there. Think about St. Augustine, who went from a very sinful life to become one of the greatest saints and theologians of all time. How did that happen? Read “The Confessions” of St. Augustine and find out! Explore, “The Interior Castle,” with St. Teresa of Avila for the tour of a lifetime. Some of the greatest saints in the Church have found the path to sanctity through spiritual reading and meditation: St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. How about you?
The “great book of creation” also tops the list, as we look upon all the beauty that God created. We “read” that book when we encounter an early, summer sunrise, or when we visit Narragansett Beach in the cool of the afternoon. We do not simply gaze at these marvels. No, we go one step further, and spend some time in meditation, seeking to understand what God is saying to us. The One who is Beauty itself, in all of these created realities, is already seeking us and drawing us ever more deeply into a life-giving relationship with Himself.
When we take the time to meditate—at least fifteen minutes each day, seeking God—the Catechism goes on to say that we begin to open up one of the greatest adventure stories of all:
To meditate on what we read helps us to make it our own by confronting it within ourselves. Here, another book is opened: the book of life. We pass from thoughts to reality.
We meditate on the humility of Christ and His gentleness towards those around Him, and we become more humble. We meditate on the patience of Christ on the cross, and His great mercy towards sinners (that would be you and me), and we become more patient, more merciful. Our thoughts and meditations help to cultivate the soil of our hearts that, in the parable of the sower, bears tremendous fruit.
As Christ teaches us in this wonderful parable, the sower scatters the seed everywhere: in the places that it will bear fruit and even in the places where the ground is infertile. God is constantly speaking to us, communicating His love to us, revealing His word to those who are able to hear it. In one of her reflections on prayer, the great mystic, St. Catherine of Siena, describes God’s word to us as a fountain; that spring is bubbling over with fresh, life-giving water. In the city where she lived, there was a large fountain in the middle of the busy market square. During the day, hundreds of people would be walking about that square, contracting business or shouting to one another. One could see the fountain, but certainly there was no possibility of hearing it.
But to go there at night, long after all the people had retired to their homes, one could not only see the fountain glistening in the moonlight; one could also hear the water bubbling up from that fountain. The water could be heard cascading onto the tiles below. God’s word is very much like that. We have to be very still and prayerfully quiet, in order to hear it. “Whoever has ears,” Jesus announces this weekend, “ought to hear” (Matthew 13:9).
If we listen well, taking time each day to seek God in meditation, we place ourselves near the God who is the source and fulfillment of all our desire. We allow Him to cultivate the soil of our hearts and make them receptive to His life-giving word and the treasures of the spiritual life. If we are willing to do that, then we will discover the mystery Christ speaks about in this weekend’s Gospel, that we, too, can bear tremendous fruit for God, “a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold” (Matthew 13:23).