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.”

Sunday, February 01, 2015

The God Who Overcomes Evil

Peter Paul Rubens-The Resurrection of Christ

(4th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on January 31, 2015 at Holy Spirit Church in Central Falls, R.I., February 1, 2015 at St. Brendan's Church in Riverside, R.I., Holy Spirit Church in Central Falls, R.I. and St. Rocco's Church in Johnston, R.I.; See Mark 1:21-28)

Batman.  Superman.  Spider Man.
Beauty and the Beast.  Cinderella. 
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

What do all of these stories, all of these films, have in common?  They all represent that perennial struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.  Truth be told, the reason why we are so captivated by those stories, the reason why we will watch those movies over and over again, and view sequel after sequel, is because—on some fundamental level—they ring true. 

We certainly experience that great battle between good and evil in the world we live in.  We can see it on the evening news and read about it in the newspaper.  But even internally, deep within the human spirit, we sense the reality of that struggle:

§  We are, in fact, never more anxious, more saddened, more weighed down and discouraged, than when we have been drawn into evil and into the self-destructiveness of sin. 

§  But we also never feel more like ourselves—more peace-filled, joyful and free—than when we allow God to draw us into the things that are good, holy, virtuous and true. 

Isn’t that why you came here today?  Christ draws us into all that is good when He gathers us together here to listen to the word of God and the message of our redemption; God draws us into communion with Christ and with each other here in the Holy Eucharist.  This is the real drama that we identify in the books and the movies that enchant us, because it is the drama of every human life.

We find that drama taking place in a powerful way in the Gospel of St. Mark this weekend.   We are told that Christ entered the synagogue in Capernaum and He began to teach the people.  He was drawing them into the great story of salvation and bringing them more completely into the good that God had designed for them.  But suddenly Jesus is confronted, face-to-face, by evil.  St. Mark relates that there was a man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit, and that this evil spirit began to cry out against Christ, the Destroyer himself accusing God of destruction:

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
—Mark 1:24

It is a disturbing scene, in particular because of where that scene takes place: in the holy place.  We would not be surprised to see Christ confronted by evil in the street, or in some seedy place where vice flourishes; but, of all places, in the synagogue? 

At the same time we should not be surprised at all if we truly understand who Christ is.  Jesus is not simply a good man.  He is the God-man.  He is the eternal Son of God who is the origin of all that is good; Jesus Christ is the embodiment of goodness itself, and evil cannot tolerate to be in the presence of that which is all-good.    While Satan's usual mode of operation is to remain hidden in the background, working deceptively and destructively even in holy places, the presence of Jesus suddenly draws him out.  Rightly does the evil spirit rail against the Christ in that panicked moment, and especially in that sacred space.  The game is up.

But it is also true that Christ cannot tolerate that which is evil.  He is more than up to the task of dealing deliberately and decisively with this unclean spirit.   He calls the demon out directly, and commands:

“Quiet! Come out of him!”
—Mark 1:25

After a brief struggle, and with no small amount of resistance, the unclean spirit departs from that person and the man is finally set free.

It is a dramatic struggle and it reminds us of what we truly believe in our Catholic faith about God and the good.  The Christian faith is very different from many of the Eastern religions that describe the struggle of good versus evil as a battle between two equal forces.  It is not the case that good and evil “balance” each other off in some impersonal, moral equilibrium.  No, what we believe clearly is that God is all-good, as well as all-powerful.  He has power over all of creation, over all spirits, and all things.  He speaks the word of command in the Gospel this weekend, “Quiet!  Come out of him!” and it is accomplished. 

As uncomfortable as it may be to name it, what Christ performs in the Gospel this weekend is, literally, an exorcism.  He casts out the evil spirit that has possessed this man in the synagogue.  We believe in the reality of exorcism in the Catholic faith.  There is, in fact, a Rite of Exorcism in the Catholic faith, and there are priests who have used it with great effect, as effective as Jesus Christ Himself in the synagogue in Capernaum. 

Of course, exorcism is real but also rare.  Most priests have never performed one.  But there is something that Christ wills to do in our lives on a regular basis, something that is very common and very necessary.  He wills to drive away that which is evil—in whatever forms we find it present in our world and in our lives—and He wills to draw us into that which is good, virtuous and holy.  Are we allowing Him to do that fully and are we cooperating completely in that great plan for our redemption?

Fr. Gabriele Amorth, the chief exorcist of the Diocese of Rome, writes in his book, An Exorcist Tells His Story, that there are two things that God does frequently among the Catholic faithful that can be even more powerful and more effective than an exorcism.  These two things may surprise you.

The first one is Sacramental Absolution.  The Sacrament of Reconciliation.  To make a good, integral confession and to receive absolution from the priest, is something that can be more powerful than driving out a demon from a possessed person.  Why would Fr. Amorth say that?  Because we believe that sin damages our relationship with God and with those around us.  Our Catholic faith teaches us that some of these sins are venial; we participate in gossip, tell little white lies.  These things are wrong and sinful, but they do not necessarily break our relationship with God. 

Mortal sins, however—sins which are serious, grave and even deadly—can and do break our relationship with God and result in the departure from what is called a “state of grace,” the beautiful bond that God has formed with us through our sacred Baptism.  “Sanctifying grace” is the life of God within the soul that allows us to live and love in a supernatural way.  To die in a state of mortal sin, having lost that “sanctifying grace,” is to put one’s soul and eternal salvation in peril.  To come to the end of our lives having committed serious, grave and mortal sins which have never been confessed before God and never truly repented from, is to risk the loss of heaven and the loss of eternal life with God. 

But in one, sincere, heartfelt and contrite moment, when we confess our sins before God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation which He instituted for that very purpose, we receive pardon and peace and the forgiveness of God restores that grace which we long for and desire above all earthly things.  Passing on from this world in a state of sanctifying grace, we are fully prepared to enter into eternal life with God.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is that powerful, that awesome and life giving.  How tragic that, in this time in which there are so many temptations and occasions to fall away from God and to forget His great invitation to eternal life, there are fewer and fewer Catholics that take advantage of that opportunity to live fully and abundantly in God.

The second thing mentioned by Fr. Amorth that is even more powerful than exorcism is listening to the word of God and its explanation through good preaching (while he does not explicitly state that the Eucharist is preeminent, it is clear from his context that he takes this as a given).  So why preaching, and why the word of God?  Amorth mentions the teaching of St. Paul, who writes in his letter to the Church at Rome:  “Faith comes through what is heard and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Romans 10:17).

It is when we listen to the word of God proclaimed, week after week, and hear that word explained and taught, that we grow in our faith and we are drawn ever more deeply into the mysteries of Jesus Christ.  We hear about Christ, who suffered and died for the forgiveness of our sins; how He rose from the dead and invites us into that supernatural life that has the power to overcome death itself. 

God draws us into that life-giving relationship with Himself and increases our faith and our conviction to live out the Gospel, to pray, to reach out in love to those around us and to reach up in gratitude, worship and praise.  That living and active faith, explains Fr. Amorth, sets up a “force-field” of sorts, like a protective wall around the treasure that is our soul.  When a Catholic man or woman lives out his or her faith to the fullest, Jesus Christ is able to drive out the forces of evil; they are not able to gain ground or take root in the place where God dwells.  There is nothing as powerful as a soul totally possessed by the living God.  As the saying goes: 

“Satan trembles when he sees 
the weakest saint upon his knees.”

How are we allowing Jesus Christ to drive away evil and fill us with all that is good in our lives this week?  How can we cooperate most fully in these opportunities to be sanctified and to be instruments of God’s sanctification in our world today?

Because, truly, we are not saved from our sins by Batman.  It is not Spiderman or Superman who died on the cross to give us the ineffable mercy of God.  It is Jesus Christ alone who overcomes the powers of evil and grants us the supernatural life to be transformed and to live like never before.  May we allow Him to drive away from us all that is evil and become His instruments of goodness and love in a world desperate for heroes and hungry for the things of God.