Sunday, July 05, 2015

Prophets: Ezekiel, Christ and You!

Michelangelo's Ezekiel (Sistene Chapel)

(14th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on July 5, 2015 at St. Luke's Church in Barrington, R.I.; See Ezekiel 2:2-5 and Mark 6:1-6)

We catch a glimpse this weekend of the awesome mission and ministry of the prophet.  In our first reading we hear about the call and ministry of Ezekiel.  Along with Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel, Ezekiel is one of the four Major Prophets of the Old Testament. 

Likewise, in the Gospel of St. Mark this weekend, Christ identifies Himself specifically as a prophet:

A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.
—Mark 6:4

The word prophet, in Hebrew, is nabi, and it comes from the root word meaning “to bubble forth, as from a fountain.”  It is quite a striking image for us to reflect on; we can imagine a large, ornate fountain, bubbling over with its fresh, clear water.  The image is also one that can be quite instructive. 

There are two things immediately obvious about a fountain.  The first is that it does not generate water of itself.  Fountains are made of marble, stone or concrete.  The water comes to a fountain from the outside.  Secondly, the water from a fountain is constantly bubbling forth.  Day and night the waters cascade over the marble in a consistent and refreshing flow.  We find both of these elements in the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel.

Ezekiel tells us in our reading for this weekend:

As the Lord spoke to me, the spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard the one who was speaking say to me: Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, rebels who have rebelled against me . . . you shall say to them: Thus says the Lord God!
—Ezekiel 2:2-4

The Spirit of God entered Ezekiel the prophet and God told him what to say; the message he was to proclaim was not his own.  He was not offering his opinion to the people of Israel.  His calling and prophetic message were from God, and what bubbled forth from Ezekiel was the infinitely powerful word of the Lord. 

Secondly, Ezekiel’s proclamation of that word of God was constant.

The beginning of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel is very much a message of doom and gloom.  He cries out against a people who have forsaken the Lord their God, a truly “rebellious house.”  In fact, by the time Ezekiel begins to prophesy the nation has already begun its exile into Babylon.  Ezekiel is the only major prophet to carry out his ministry on foreign soil.  But he warns the people that if they persist in their sins and violate the laws of God, then Jerusalem itself will fall and the Temple will be destroyed.  Such a possibility was unthinkable for most of the people, despite the fact that the exile that was already taking place. 

Sadly, the people did not believe the words of the prophet Ezekiel.  In the year 586 BC the City of Jerusalem fell and the Temple was laid waste.  But then something began to change in the message of the prophet.  Ezekiel’s proclamation changed from one of doom and gloom to a message of hope, healing and restoration.

It is as if Ezekiel the prophet were saying, “You have failed to live out the covenant that God made with you, and you have forgotten God. . . But He has not forgotten you!”  Although all that he had foretold had come to pass—the fall of Jerusalem and the temple left in ruins—the message of the prophet continues to bubble forth, even in the land of exile, announcing the perennial and inexorable word of God. 

God, towards the end of the book, announces through the prophet:

I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land.  I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
—Ezekiel 36:24-26

In the next chapter we hear about the valley of dry bones, in which Ezekiel receives a vision of God restoring Israel and breathing new life into the nation once again (Ezekiel 37:1-14).  Ezekiel will likewise relate the vision of the rebuilding of the Temple, where a river too deep and expansive to cross will flow from the sanctuary and bring healing and new life to everything in its path (Ezekiel 47:1-12). 

Constantly was the message of God bubbling forth from the prophet to bring the people the word of God that alone gives life.

In the Gospel of St. Mark this weekend, Jesus Christ is announcing that same saving message.  The response of the people is one of both astonishment (Mark 6:2) and, sadly, lack of faith (Mark 6:6).  Nonetheless, in all of the Gospel accounts, Jesus Christ is constantly proclaiming the saving message of God.  Not unlike the prophetic message of Ezekiel, that message is one of repentance and a warning that failure to heed the word of God will end in destruction, but Jesus' message is also predominately focused on healing, hope and the forgiveness that will lead to eternal life. 

Why is the prophetic mission of Ezekiel and, ultimately, of Jesus Christ, so vitally important for us as Christians?  It is essential for us because, as men and women baptized into Christ, we share in that prophetic mission and ministry.  On the day that we were baptized, the priest or deacon prayed:

“The God of power and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
has freed you from sin, given you a new birth
by water and the Holy Spirit,
and welcomed you into his holy people. 
He now anoints you with the chrism of salvation.
As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King,
so may you live always as a member of his body,
sharing everlasting life.”
—Rite of Baptism

We share in that three-fold office of Jesus Christ: priest, prophet and king: 

§  As Jesus Christ offered Himself in sacrifice on the altar of the cross for the salvation of the world, we, too, share in that priesthood by offering ourselves freely and generously to God as a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1-2).  

§  Jesus Christ rules over the nations as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but He leaves us an example of how to do that by getting down on His hands and knees and washing the disciples’ feet; we rule with Christ and share in his reign when we serve our brothers and sisters in self-giving love. 

§  But, pertinent to this weekend’s readings, we share also in the prophetic ministry of Jesus Christ by virtue of our baptism and the anointing we have received from the Holy Spirit.

How desperately the world we live in needs this prophetic ministry from the baptized people of God!  We are living in times unprecedented in which marriage and the family are in crisis like never before since the foundation of the Christian Church.  Our Holy Father Pope Francis has called an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family (2014) and now an Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family (2015) specifically to address this very crisis.   We live in a world where the lives of the unborn and the elderly are vulnerable and, tragically, expendable. 

Beyond these critical areas of social and communal life, there are countless men and women who work hard each and every day, trying to build a family and to make a difference in this world, and who come to the end of the day without fully understanding what the meaning of life really is.  They do not know or understand the purpose for living or the reason why they were created.

But we, as the baptized people of God and disciples of Jesus Christ, know exactly what the meaning and the purpose of life is.  That meaning and that purpose are found here, on this altar, in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, our Lord and God.  The meaning and purpose of life is found here, in the proclamation of the Sacred Scriptures and in an intimate, personal relationship with Jesus Christ, who loves us, died for us on the cross and rose to new life again to bring us into an eternal life with God! 

The world around us has forgotten this meaning and this purpose.  You and I, as prophets sharing in the three-fold office of Jesus Christ, are called to remind them.  We are called, like Ezekiel and like Jesus in the synagogue, to bubble forth the message and the word of God, like a fountain.  We receive that word lovingly and willingly, and we strive to constantly make the message of the Gospel known in the world around us by the way we love, by the way we live and by the words that we use each day.

In conclusion, we can take solace from the Prophet Ezekiel this weekend, who reminds us that the results and the effects of our work and lives as Christians are entirely dependent upon God.  The Lord asks us simply to be faithful.  As He sent out Ezekiel to announce His message—whether or not the people would listen—all that he required of the prophet was fidelity; so it is with us.  Like Ezekiel, may we also be strengthened in the words of the Lord, that “whether they heed or resist . . . they shall know that a prophet has been among them” (Ezekiel 2:5).

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Faith in the Storm, Christ in the Boat

Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633)

(12th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on June 21, 2015 at St. Aidan's Church in Cumberland, R.I. and Mary, Mother of Mankind Church in North Providence, R.I.; See Mark 4:35-41)

In the Catholic vision of things, the world around us matters.  Everything and everyone around us has profound meaning and purpose.  First and foremost, relationships and people matter.  But more than that, even the world we live in, nature and the environment, these things all matter in the deepest and most significant way.  Just this past week our Holy Father, Pope Francis, issued his new encyclical letter, Laudato Si, addressing specifically our responsibility to care for nature and the environment.  Referring to the words of the beloved St. Francis of Assisi, in his 13th century Italian poem, the Canticle of the Creatures, our Holy Father sings:

“Laudato si, Signore, per sora nostra matre terra,
la quale ne sustenta et governa, et produce
diversi fructi con coloriti flori et herba.”

Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, 
Mother Earth,
who sustains and governs us, and who produces
various fruit with colored flowers and herbs.

The way that we care for the people in our lives and the way we relate to the created world around us is, in fact, reflective of our relationship with God.  To look at it from another perspective, in the words of the great poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”  We cannot truly relate to God on a deeply spiritual level if we are not attentive to His presence in persons around us and in the natural world.  We, likewise, express our love and affection for God by the way we treat the people and even the things around us.  With great appreciation for the material world God gave us, we can use these very things to bless and render thanksgiving to Him.

One of the most breathtaking and poignant examples of that expression is found in the way churches were constructed in the great cities of the world like Paris, Rome, Brussels and Cologne in the Middle Ages.  These magnificent basilicas and great gothic cathedrals were not made to be merely practical.  They were made from basic elements of wood and stone in order to express the glory and the grandeur of God.

The structure of these great churches, without exception, was cruciform; they were all fashioned in the shape of the cross.  The two side transepts formed the shorter cross beam, while the longer dimensions of the church consisted of the apse where the altar was located and the sacrifice of the Mass took place, and the central isle which is called the nave.

Aerial view of Cologne Cathedral

That word, nave, is taken from the Latin word navis, which means, “ship.”  If you look at the long, narrow ceiling of the breathtaking Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the vaulted ceiling comes together in a point, and the ribs along that ceiling make it look like the hull or the belly of an upside down ship.

The message being communicated is that the faithful enter into the mystery of the cross when they come to worship God; they enter deeply into the mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ.  When they do so, they are also entering into the ship where Christ is the Captain and they are being kept safe from the chaos and the storms that could destroy their souls; they are being led to the safety of the harbor of eternal life with God.    

There is a beautiful expression of that mystery in the Gospel this weekend.  St. Mark tells us that Christ took the initiative and said to His disciples, “Let us cross to the other side” (Mark 4:35).    It is always Christ who takes the initiative in our spiritual lives, and He is constantly challenging us to leave behind the danger of the secular world, those tendencies that ruin Christian life and draw us away from Him.   The natural world is good and beautiful, as Pope Francis reminds us in Laudato Si, but secularization and a world without God will leave us empty and without joy; if we stay immersed in the secular world long enough we risk losing our souls.  “Let us cross to the other side,” (Mark 4:35), Jesus implores us.  There are three timely lessons that the Disciples of Christ teach us this weekend in answer to that great invitation.

Firstly we discover that Jesus, who takes the initiative and greatly desires that we make this journey to eternal life with Him, nonetheless always honors our freedom.  St. Mark tells us, “Leaving the crowd, they took Jesus with them in the boat, just as he was” (Mark 4:36).  Jesus will never force Himself into the boat with us.  He takes the initiative in that loving encounter of faith, but He always waits for us to make the decision of whether or not we will receive Him intimately into our lives.  It is completely up to us if we want Him in the boat; if we want him in our lives; in our families; in our workplace; in our personal relationships.

Perhaps you have never really taken a moment to actually do that; it’s possible that you may have never actually knelt down in a Church like this one or in the privacy of your own home, and said, “Jesus, I want you in my life; I welcome you into my family, into my home, into my struggles and into all my hopes and dreams.  I want you to be an integral and intimate part of my life.”  If we have never had the chance to actually do that, there is no better time than right now.

Which brings me to the second important lesson that the disciples teach us this morning.  When we invite Christ into our lives and welcome Him into the boat with us, out of necessity we must also maintain a dialogue and a conversation with Him.  After all, it can be really awkward to be in a boat, in close quarters with another person, and never actually speak with them!  When we welcome Him into our lives we also have to speak to Him, maybe even complain to Him, thank Him, and share with Him our deepest secrets; in turn, we also have to be willing to listen to Him, listen to what He has to say to us as we accompany Him on that journey “to the other side.”   In the Christian tradition, obviously, that dialogue and conversation is called prayer.

There is a prayer, by the way, in our Gospel this weekend.  Unfortunately, it is not a very good one.  St. Mark tells us that after the disciples responded to Christ’s initiative and welcomed Him into the boat, suddenly a great storm rose up on the sea and they were in mortal danger.  The winds were threatening to capsize their vessel.  Water was coming up over the bow.  They were terrified, and they began to pray: “Do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4: 38). 

Wow.  That is not a very good prayer, is it?  But before we judge these disciples, if we are honest, we can admit that we have perhaps all prayed like that before.  Lord, do you not care that my marriage is failing; that my friendships are floundering; that my work is flagging; that my personal life is in a shambles.  Do you not even care? . . .

And if we have prayed like that before, then we know that the answer usually comes before we even finish the prayer: Of course He cares!  Could God suffer and die on the cross for us, but then not really care about the troubles and the difficulties that we are facing?  Is that even possible?  Of course not!  When the disciples finally wake Him up, Jesus responds immediately:

He woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Quiet! Be still!”  The wind ceased and there was great calm.
—Mark 4: 39

Jesus Christ most certainly cares about the dangers and the difficulties that we face.  But the question we need to ask this morning is not, “Does Jesus care?”  It is, instead, “What.  On.  Earth.  took the disciples so long to wake Him up in the first place?!”  It is not the case that Jesus is asleep in their lives, nor is He asleep in ours.  We are the ones who are often asleep in the spiritual life while the doors to prayer are wide open and Jesus Christ is waiting to hear from us.  Those disciples could have woken Him up and said, “Lord, there are some storm clouds out over the horizon and we are a little anxious right now.”  They could have woken Him even when things were calm and said, “Lord, what a beautiful sunset; we are grateful to be here with you.”  God is inviting us, every day, into that intimate and life-giving dialogue with Him.  Are we answering that invitation and growing in our personal lives of prayer?

The final lesson the disciples teach us this weekend is actually the foundation for the other two, and it has to do with the question Jesus asks them at the end of that remarkable Gospel passage.  After he calms the storm on the sea, and there is great peace, He turns to those disciples and asks, “Why are you terrified?  Do you not yet have faith?”  (Mark 4:40).  In other words, He is the Son of God; they have watched Him heal the sick and cast out demons.  He has command over the land and the sea and over all created things.  Have they not yet come to believe that God is here among them?  Do they not yet have faith?

There are two essential things that the Church teaches us about faith.  First and foremost, faith is a gift.  It is not the case that some people simply have it and some people do not.  Faith is not like golf or gardening: some people are good at it and some people are not.  No, faith is a gift given to us by God, so if you want faith in your life…ASK FOR IT!  God gives generously and freely, and one of the many things He is always willing to give us is faith.  But faith is also a response on our part.  We respond to God’s gift by ordering our lives according to the revelation of God and the by accepting Jesus Christ into our personal lives and living our lives, ultimately, for Him.   When we do that, there is no limit to what God is able to accomplish in and through us. 

Which brings me back to the original point of this homily: Everything in this life matters. 

Our Christian faith matters, for us and for the world around us.  God is calling each one of us to be transformed in faith and to be instruments of transformation in the world around us.

Are we willing to welcome Him into our lives, to bring Him into the boat with us this week? 

Do we long to enter ever more deeply into that intimate conversation with God called prayer, bringing our lives into conformity with His will and listening attentively to His voice crying out to us in the silence? 

And are we willing to respond in faith to the gift that God offers us in this life of discipleship and love? 

May we experience in our personal lives, in our families and in our Church that faith which guides us all through life, with Jesus Christ as our Captain, and may we one day enter into that safe harbor of eternal life with God.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Catholic Priesthood: Deified and Divinizing

St. Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373)

(Monday of the 5th Week of Easter-Year B; This homily was given on 4 May 2015 at the Seminary of Our Lady of Providence in Providence, R.I.; See Acts 14:5-18 and John 14:21-26)

The scene we hear about in the Acts of the Apostles this morning is a terrifying one for St. Paul and St. Barnabas.  It might seem laughable to us, that after healing the crippled man at Lystra the crowds mistook Paul and Barnabas for the gods Zeus and Hermes and wanted to offer sacrifice to them!  The reaction of these Apostles, however, is no laughing matter.  Seized with anxiety, they immediately tore their garments and shouted:

Men, why are you doing this?  We are of the same nature as you, human beings.
—Acts 14:15

It is a fearful and shameful thing for a man to consider himself a god, or allow others to think so.  They spared no effort to make it perfectly clear that they were men, and not gods.  They were Paul and Barnabas, and not Hermes and Zeus!  

Which brings me to a famous expression that I would like to offer this morning; see if you can guess who said it.  The statement, referring to the incarnation, the coming of God as man, is this:

“God became man so that we could become God.”

Now who would dare to say something like that?  Was it Arius?  Pelagius?  Nestorius?  Which one of the great heretics of old said those words? 

In fact, it was none of them.  The person who famously offered that expression is not a heretic at all, but a saint. 

St. Athanasius, whose Feast Day we just celebrated last Saturday, May 2, said that “God made himself a man in order that man might be able to become God.”  It is the Christian doctrine of deification, and Cristoph Cardinal Shönborn explains how that formulation is found in all of the great Church Fathers, in the Middle Ages and right on into the Modern period.  It is only in contemporary times that many theologians have abandoned that doctrine in favor of a mere “humanization.” 

But the truth of Christianity, referred to by the Church Fathers as the “wonderful exchange,” is that God became man so that we could be “deified.”  One of the early Church councils, the Council of Chalcedon, championed that truth by explaining how both the human nature of Christ and His divine nature exist together in perfect harmony, without the loss or confusion of either.   It is not the case that when God took on our human nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary that he suddenly overwhelmed it and eradicated it.  No, He took on our human nature and remained both God and man, thus making it possible for us to become like Him!  He became man so that we could be deified.    

This is the very mystery that Christ is referring to this morning in the Gospel of St. John when He says:

Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.
—John 14:23

It is not merely that the thoughts of God will dwell in us; God’s sentiments alone do not dwell in us; we do not simply have god-like habits that dwell in us.  GOD dwells in us!  In Baptism the Holy Spirit begins to live in us and we are divinized.  The God who so loved the world that He became man, now in the Sacraments of the Church, deifies us.  This, in a preeminent way, is the essential gift that the priest brings to the world.

In his book, From Death to Life: The Christian Journey, Cardinal Shönborn refers to one of the works of St. Gregory of Nazianzus on the ministry of the Sacred Priesthood, and mentions how the “exaltedness of his new task makes the one who is about to become a priest shudder.”  Shönborn goes on to offer the quote from Nazianzus that would later be incorporated into the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s description of the effects of the priesthood.  That quote reads:

We must begin by purifying ourselves before purifying others; we must be instructed to be able to instruct, become light to illuminate, draw close to God to bring him close to others, be sanctified to sanctify, lead by the hand and counsel prudently. I know whose ministers we are, where we find ourselves and to where we strive. I know God's greatness and man's weakness, but also his potential. [Who then is the priest? He is] the defender of truth, who stands with angels, gives glory with archangels, causes sacrifices to rise to the altar on high, shares Christ's priesthood, refashions creation, restores it in God's image, recreates it for the world on high and, even greater, is divinized and divinizes.

—Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 1589

There is something that the Catholic priest is called to do that no other human being on earth is called to do.  There is something that the world needs more than anything else on earth, or in heaven, and that the Catholic priest brings to this earth in a preeminent way.  The world needs God.  Desperately.  Human nature cries out to God for divinization.  The priest, himself divinized and sanctified for the sanctification of the world, brings God into the world by virtue of his sacred priesthood.  The priest brings the body and the blood of Christ into the world, onto the altar and into the bodies and the souls of the faithful.  The priest brings the sacramental absolution, the forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, freeing men and women from sin and death and restoring God’s divine life to those who long to receive it.  The priest anoints with oil the sick and the dying, preparing them in that unction to be united to God for all eternity.

There are literally thousands of faithful souls who fill our churches every weekend who have never heard this remarkable mystery explained to them.  There are thousands of homilies preached week after week that never come close to this essential and mystical reality that is both miraculous and basic to the life of every Baptized Christian.

In this Easter Season, in particular as men preparing to be ordained to the Sacred Priesthood of Jesus Christ, I would suggest that we spend time each day meditating on this remarkable gift, this “wonderful exchange” that comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ.  The priest is called to be deified, and to be then the instrument of God in bringing souls into this awesome reality, truly becoming the one who deifies those whom he is called to serve as he helps lead them to union with Christ in the Sacraments and in the teachings of our faith.  May we truly embrace this call and become that priest that “shares Christ's priesthood, refashions creation, restores it in God's image, recreates it for the world on high and, even greater, is divinized and divinizes.”