Monday, July 16, 2018

Freedom, Vocation and Joy

(Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on July 15, 2018 at La Chiesa di Santo Spirito in Sassia, Rome; See Amos 7:12-15, Ephesians 1:3-14 and Mark 6: 7-13)

What is it about us that makes us most like God?  We are taught from childhood that we are made in the Imago Dei, the image of God.  What, exactly, makes us most like the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?  

Some would say it is our creativity.  God brings the world into existence through an amazing act of love.  Even so, He allows us to share in that same creative power.  We have the ability to co-create with God, to bring new life into the world.  A newborn child is a miracle of grace.  We also have the capacity to combine materials and substances to make medicines that heal and sustain life.  That is an amazing power, to heal even as God heals.  There are countless ways that we can be creative, innovative, imaginative.  Artists, poets and musicians never cease to inspire and motivate us.  Our creativity, then, expresses so beautifully that we are created in God’s image.

Others might say that our capacity for joy is what makes us most like God.  St. Philip Neri indicated that joy is the infallible sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit.  When we encounter a person who radiates joy, we sense the nearness of the Holy Spirit.  It is a clear and unmistakable sign that she is created in the image of God.

The Second Vatican Council, however, teaches us that “Freedom is the highest sign in man of his being made in the divine image and, consequently, is a sign of the sublime dignity of every human person” (Gaudium et Spes, #17).  God is totally free and eternally exercises that freedom in love.  When we act in that same freedom we are never more like God.

Yet our culture so often misunderstands and misrepresents the true meaning of freedom.  When many speak of freedom today, what they actually describe is license.  Freedom is understood as the ability to do whatever I want, whenever I want to.  No one can ever place restrictions on what I desire to be or what I want to do.  But that is not freedom in the classic vision of the Catholic faith.  St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic tradition teach us that true freedom entails choosing the right thing, the true path of goodness.  To be totally free means that we choose in accord with the good, and ultimately in accord with God.  The more we choose what is true and good, the more we enjoy the awesome gift of freedom.  The path opens up for us all the more, giving us joy and peace.  

To choose what is contrary to the good that God reveals, to move in the opposite direction than the one that God desires for us, is not precisely freedom at all.  In fact, the more we choose what is contrary to the good, the more restricted and less free we become.  People suffering from addictive behaviors would be the first to admit that sad reality.  The misuse of freedom, in fact, can lead to enslavement.

Freedom, then, is an amazing responsibility and a tremendous gift.  Perhaps for this very reason, there are certain things that we are actually not free to choose at all.  God, in His great love, has simply chosen them for us.  

One of those things, obviously, is the fact that we exist.  Not one of us here today made a decision to be born.  That was something that God chose, and He did so because He loved us.  Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in a General Audience several years ago, reflected on the amazing gratuitousness of creation and on the God who brought us into life.  It was no accident, not some random act or inconsequential circumstance.  God created us in love, and He also sustains us as a continual act of love.  He wrote:

The fundamental truth that the accounts of Genesis reveal to us is that the world is not a collection of forces that clash with each other; it has its origin and its permanence in the Logos, in God’s eternal Reason which continues to sustain the universe.
—Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, 6 February 2013

It is as if God were to cease loving us and thinking about us for one moment, we would simply cease to exist.  He continues, “the human being came into existence because God breathed the breath of life into the body he had formed from earth (cf. Gen 2:7). The human being is made in God’s image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26-27). For this reason we all bear within us the life-giving breath of God and every human life — the Bible tells us — is under God’s special protection.”
God, then, is constantly loving us, constantly sustaining us in life.  What an amazing gift life is!

Secondly, even the meaning and fulfilment of our existence is not something we have decided but has already been chosen for us by God.  Our final end, the reason for which God created us, is to share in eternal life with Him.  He has not made us to find ultimate fulfillment in any other purpose.  There is no Plan B!  We are made to live in eternal happiness with God in heaven.  That was God’s choice, not ours.  What has been entrusted to us is the freedom to choose in accord with that end.  We have the freedom to make decisions that place us squarely on that path and help us to find happiness in our earthly journey on the way to eternal beatitude.  The more we make those decisions, the more free and joyful we become.  

Of course, we can also choose to seek happiness elsewhere.  We can decide that life in Jesus Christ is not happiness for us at all; we can choose to find happiness in someone, or something, else.  We can even choose to consistently reject the good that God makes known to us, and choose a life separated from all these things.  We can choose not to be reconciled to God when we wander far from Him; to not be reconciled with those around us. We can choose a life separated even from God Himself.  In the Christian tradition, that is called hell.  It is certainly a possibility for those of us who possess the awesome responsibility of human freedom.

But God gives us so much help to avoid that possibility!  We have the Sacraments of the Church, the examples of the saints, the immeasurable mercy of God.  And to keep us on that path that will best suit us to be totally free and joyful on the journey to eternal life, God chooses something else for each one of us: our vocation.

Vocation comes from the Latin word, vocare, which means “to call.”  It presumes that we are called by another, and not ourselves.  A vocation is something that God chooses for us, and invites us into, always fully respecting our freedom.  For most of us here today, God calls and invites His faithful to the vocation of married life.  For others, it is religious life, or priesthood.  But God is the one who takes the initiative and gives us all that we need to be effective and fruitful in that vocation.  This comes out clearly in our readings for this weekend.

In the first reading, the Prophet Amos receives a sharp rebuke from the Priest of Bethel, Amaziah:

Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah!  There earn your bread prophesying, but never again prophesy in Bethel.
—Amos 7:12-13

At the time, Israel was a divided kingdom.  Amos was from Judah, in the south.  The northern kingdom, however, was rife with corruption.  They neither appreciated nor desired this outsider from the south calling them back to God’s covenant.  Amos, however, makes it perfectly clear that this was not his idea to begin with.

I was no prophet, nor have I belonged to a company of prophets; I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.  The LORD took me from following the flock, and said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’
—Amos 7:14-15

Amos did not decide one day to become a prophet of God, but a prophet of God he was.  Because he cooperated with God and lived courageously and generously this vocation that God called him to, he was tremendously effective in his prophetic ministry.  In fact, today, thousands of years after his death, he continues to speak to the social consciousness of God’s people.  Amos, called by God, is a prophet indeed!

In the Gospel, as well, we hear how Jesus Christ called the Apostles.  St. Mark writes, “Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits” (Mark 6:7).  God called them.  He sent them out, two by two.   It was not their idea to try to make the world a better place.

Ultimately, though, it is St. Paul this morning that teaches us about the foundation of every vocation and the total gratuitousness of our life in Jesus Christ.  We have been chosen by God, called by God, to be holy and to live for Him:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him.
—Ephesians 1:3-4

Before the world even existed, God chose us!  God calls each and every one of us to holiness of life, and only in answering that call will we be fully equipped and able to embrace our individual vocation in life.  Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, begins his new Apostolic Exhortation—Gaudete et Exultate—with this very quote from St. Paul, seeking “to repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities” (Gaudete et Exultate, #2).  
Pope Francis reflects on the lives of the saints, and how they were able to answer God’s call even amidst mistakes and failures.  He urges us to consider the entirety of their lives as a journey towards holiness, and then he challenges all of us to walk that same path:

This is a powerful summons to all of us.  You too need to see the entirety of your life as a mission.  Try to do so by listening to God in prayer and recognizing the signs that he gives you.  Always ask the Spirit what Jesus expects from you at every moment of your life and in every decision you must make, so as to discern its place in the mission you have received.  Allow the Spirit to forge in you the personal mystery that can reflect Jesus Christ in today’s world.
—Gaudete et Exultate, #23

How desperately the world we live in longs to see the face of Jesus Christ!  Living out our own vocation the fullest, we make Him known to those around us.  Pope Francis continues, encouraging us to allow Christ to speak His saving message to the world in and through us:

Let yourself be transformed.  Let yourself be renewed by the Spirit, so that this can happen, lest you fail in your mission.  The Lord will bring it to fulfilment despite your mistakes and missteps, provided that you do not abandon the path of love but remain ever open to his supernatural grace, which purifies and enlightens.
—Gaudete et Exultate, #24

In every vocation, even within the lives of the saints, there are moments of failure, times of difficulty and struggle.  Perhaps we will fall many times on that path God has called us to follow.  What matters most of all is that we get up!  What is central to the call of God is that we constantly strive to move forward on the path of love and allow the grace of God to transform us along the way.  Pope Francis urges us that this particularly fruitful use of our freedom can purify us, and give us a clearer sense of what God is doing in our lives and in the world around us.

May we all find ourselves firmly on this path in the coming week, seeking to answer, as completely as possible, God’s call in our lives.  Living our own vocation, then, may those we encounter hear God’s voice, see the face of Christ, and find their own way to the path that leads to their final end in God.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Transfiguration: Paradise Found

The Garden of Eden, By Lucas Cranach the Elder (16th Century)

(Second Sunday of Lent-Year B; This homily was given on February 25, 2018 at St. Paul Church in Cranston, R.I. and the Cathedral of Ss. Peter and Paul in Providence, R.I.; See Mark 9: 2-10)

One of the most beautiful words in Sacred Scripture is used to describe God’s original plan for the human race, the dream He had for us in the beginning.  It reveals what the world was like in the Garden of Eden, before the fall, in the Book of Genesis.  That same word is also found in the final book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, to describe the heavenly reward of those who persevere in their faith to the end (see Revelation 2:7).  

That word is paradise.

Paradise is not a word from the Hebrew language or culture, expressed so thoroughly in the Old Testament.  Nor is Paradise a product of the Greco-Roman culture, the historical backdrop for the New Testament.  Paradise is taken from the Persian culture (modern day Iran), and it means, literally, “a walled-in garden.”  

The king would have his own walled-in garden, his own paradise, filled with beautiful flowers and fruit trees.  Only those closest to the king were allowed to walk with him in that sacred space.  The queen, perhaps members of the court, and those most intimate and familiar to the king would spend time with him in that paradise.   They would converse with him in the beauty of that garden.

The Book of Genesis begins with Adam and Eve, spending time with God in paradise.  He lovingly comes to them, “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8).  God created them—and us—to share in this intimate paradise with Him.  

But then it all went wrong.

Our first parents disobeyed God and broke that beautiful discourse between God and humanity.  They were exiled, east of Eden, and paradise was lost.  Very soon after that tragic forfeiture, however, God immediately begins to forge a way back for His people.  God takes the initiative to renew the conversation that He created us for.  In the Old Testament, it happens in two fundamental ways.
First God makes a covenant with His people.  He gives them the 10 commandments, the Law, and He commits Himself to a relationship of love with them.  Reminiscent of paradise, in the beginning, God declares to them, “I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Leviticus 26:12).   

But Israel did not always walk with God; they were not always obedient to the law.  Therefore, God again took the initiative to keep the conversation and the hope alive.  He sent them prophets.  The prophets speak for God, carrying His message to His beloved.  The prophets call God’s people back to the covenant that they made with Him.  Over and over again, God reaches out to them, drawing them back to that relationship that defines them as a nation.

Ultimately, though, it is Jesus Christ who speaks to them and brings God’s message of eternal peace.  Jesus comes to throw open the gates of paradise for all humanity.  He offers Himself up on the altar of the cross to give us freedom from sin and death.  It is there, at that place of great suffering, that He encounters fallen humanity in the Good Thief.   That condemned man pleads with Him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingly power.” The King of Kings replies, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke23:43)Today you will walk with me in that sacred, walled-in garden.  Today we will continue this conversation for all eternity.

In the cross and the self-offering of Christ “paradise lost” becomes “paradise found.”  It is the moment of greatest significance for our salvation and the forgiveness we long for.  Through His passion, His suffering and death, Jesus heals our broken world and brings new life.  But the cross is a difficult reality.

Christ had just been speaking about the cross in St. Mark’s Gospel when he was met with opposition from His own disciples.  He had shared with them, quite openly, “that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31).  

That news did not go over really well!  St. Peter had rebuked Jesus.  Peter was, in turn, rebuked by Jesus!  Then our Lord shared with them all that the cross was not simply a reality that He would experience, but a necessary reality for each and every disciple:

If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
—Mark 8:34

That is a difficult message to accept.  We would have it otherwise.  We would rather that God remove the crosses we carry and eliminate the obstacles that stand in our way.  Struggling through the daily challenges and painful contradictions of life is hard.  We often grow weary and discouraged by the reality of the cross.  

The cross is hard, and Jesus knows that.  For that very reason, immediately after announcing the truth about redemption through suffering, He takes Peter, James and John and leads them up to a high mountain where He is transfigured before them.  They saw Him in the glory He possessed with the Father before the foundation of the world, the glory that would be revealed to all after His resurrection from the dead.  Those disciples witnessed Moses and Elijah, the law and the prophets, speaking with Jesus and affirming His path from the passion to the glory of risen life.  

Jesus was communicating to them, and to us, that this thing ends really, really well!  Yes, there is toil and strife here, but it leads to eternal peace.  We will have to strive and struggle every day in this life, but in the end we will enter into eternal life.  This life will contain trials and the cross, but the next one will be nothing less than a share in the glory of the risen Christ!

St. Peter, on that mountain, was totally and completely open . . . to one half of that message!  “Rabbi,” he stammers, shielding his eyes from the brilliance of the transfigured Christ, “it is good that we are here!  Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Mark 9:5).  Peter does not want to go back down the mountain; he is not interested in the toil and the struggle.  He wants to stay up there, bathed in glory, far away from the shadow of the cross.  Immediately after his statement, though, Peter receives the divine smack-down:

Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; from the cloud came a voice, ‘This is my beloved Son.  Listen to him.’
—Mark 9:7

Listen to Him, Peter, as He leads you through this world in service and toil.  Listen to Him, as he gives you all you need in the sacrifice and the struggle that will sanctify you and make your life a gift for others.  Listen to Him as He leads you through this world of difficulty and danger and into the glory of the resurrection.

This is the great message for us on this Second Sunday of Lent.  We are called, along with those chosen disciples, to listen to the voice of Jesus Christ.  

Jesus speaks to us today from this sacred altar, “This is my body . . . this is the chalice of my blood . . .”  Take and receive my very life and know that I am with you in the daily struggles that you face.  I am here with you, now, and will give you the strength to bear all things.  I live in you.

We listen to Jesus Christ, who speaks to us each and every day when we spend time alone and silent before Him in prayer.  When we take the time to sit before the Master in Eucharistic adoration, or to meditate on the mysteries of His life in the Holy Rosary; when we kneel in the solitude of our own rooms or wherever God is calling us to be alone with Him, we listen to Christ.

In particular, though, we listen to Jesus in the daily challenges we face, knowing that He has not abandoned us, that He never leaves us, and that He is able to give us all that we need to follow Him faithfully and joyfully in this life.  We listen to Jesus Christ, who reminds us in a thousand different ways, that that the difficult and sometimes painful path of Christian life leads to the joy of eternal peace.  The road of the passion—for Jesus Christ and for us—leads to the glory of the resurrection.  May we be found walking on that path this Lent, and may be walk with Him forever in paradise in the life of the world to come.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Voice of the Lord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Time Travel and Eternal Life

The Persistence of Memory (1931), by Salvador Dali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kairos is different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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