Monday, November 17, 2014

The Appointed Time

(Monday of the 33rd Week in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on 17 November 2014 at the Seminary of Our Lady of Providence in Providence, R.I.; See Revelation 1:1-2:5)

There is something that can—and often will—happen to every seminarian in his formation and preparation for priesthood.  It is certainly something that can happen in the life of the Catholic priest.  St. John the Evangelist, in the beginning of the Book of Revelation this morning, indicates that it has happened in the Church of Ephesus and Jesus Christ has commissioned him to address it without delay.

In that prophetic and apocalyptic book written to the early Church, and to us, the Lord commends the Ephesians for their work, and especially their endurance in the face of trials.  They have refused to tolerate “the wicked” and have exposed the imposters claiming to be Apostles (Revelation 2:2).   More than that, however, they have suffered for the Gospel and the name of Jesus Christ.  He commends them for these outstanding marks of discipleship.

But there is something else that Christ points out to the Church in Ephesus, something that He holds against them that is unacceptable and potentially harmful.  He says: You have lost the love you had at first (Revelation 2:4).

They have lost that initial fervor, that fire and passion for Jesus Christ and the Gospel that had elevated the Church in Ephesus to the foremost place in Asia Minor.  These are the people who spread the message of salvation like wildfire across that region.   Their love for God was vivacious.   It was alive.  Contagious. 

Now it is fading away.

It can, and often does, happen that our initial fervor and passion for following Jesus Christ diminishes and gets reduced over time.  We can become so familiar with what is sacred, so acquainted with our regular routine, that we are no longer as driven as we once were to draw close to God in intimacy and share His message of salvation with conviction and joy.

St. John the Evangelist reminds us all this morning that Jesus Christ will not tolerate the loss of our first love.  No amount of work or endurance will substitute for diminished spiritual intimacy.  Christ wants it back.  In fact, He provides the solution and gives us the answer to the problem of lost spiritual fervor in our First Reading. 

The answer is time.

There are two different words in the Greek language for time.  The first is chronos, where we get the concept of chronological time.  The seconds that tick away on a watch or clock; the hours that accumulate throughout the day; the days that march along the calendar throughout the year; these are examples of chronos.  We can and should manage chronos, use it wisely to glorify God and serve Him well. 

But chronos is not the word for “time” that St. John uses in our First Reading this morning.  The word he uses in kairos, and it is different from chronos.  It is translated in our reading this morning as “the appointed time.”  St. Paul calls it “the acceptable time” (2 Corinthians 6:2).  It can be translated as the “opportune moment.”  It is God’s time. 

Kairos, according to St. Paul, is the time of salvation.  St. John this morning gives it as the very reason for this present communication to the Church in Ephesus, that “the appointed time is near” (Revelation 1:3).  We cannot manage or manufacture kairos, but God can.  Moreover, He does not provide those opportune moments in a fleeting way.   No, He is, instead, constantly intervening in time and offering those moments of grace and mercy that can reignite the fire within us and lead us back, even more deeply, into that first love.

He does that preeminently here in the Eucharist, on this altar.  In the Liturgy, when we draw close and worship God and receive His body and blood in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, He draws us back into intimacy with Himself.  When we spend hours before God in prayer, before the tabernacle or exposed here on the altar, we allow God to work in our lives to revive our initial fervor and faith. 

It happens when we become immersed in the Sacred Scriptures, and drink deeply from the Word of God as a life-giving spring.  We long to know and understand the words of God in the Scriptures that have the power to animate our spiritual lives and set out hearts on fire.  We want to know what God is saying: to us personally; to our Church; to those we are called to serve; to those who have neither known Him nor yet loved Him, but who will come to know Him through us.

God’s opportune time comes to us in those moments that we offer forgiveness, maybe even for offenses that no one has asked forgiveness for.  It happens when was seek forgiveness, and strive to be more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.  The appointed times throughout the day that God calls us to serve and to work for His glory and the building up of His kingdom, these are the moments and the times that God uses to reignite the passion and the fire that drove us to this place and initiated our response to the call of God to begin with.

“You have lost the love you had at first” (Revelation 2:4). 

How are we responding, in our daily lives, to the moments that God constantly provides, reigniting the fire and the flame of His love within us?  For the appointed time is near (Revelation 1:3), and the moment for enkindling that fire within is now. 

Sunday, November 09, 2014

The Lateran Basilica and the River of Life

(Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica-Year A; This homily was given on 8 and 9 November 2014 at St. Elizabeth Church in Bristol, R.I.; See Ezekiel 47:1-121 Corinthians 3:9-17 and John 2:13-22)

This weekend we celebrate—throughout the Church universal—the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica.  One of the four major basilicas of the City of Rome, the Basilica of St. John Lateran is actually the main cathedral of the pope.  Usually when we see the pope on television he is in the Vatican or celebrating Mass in St. Peters Basilica (also one of the four major basilicas).  But from as far back as the 4th century the Basilica of St. John Lateran, not St. Peter’s, has been the pope’s cathedral.

Yet what we celebrate this weekend in the Church is not the wood, stone, marble and stained glass that constitutes that Roman architectural wonder, as much as the magnificent and awesome reality that it symbolizes: the temple of the living God that is the Body of Christ, the Church.  As St. Paul emphatically reminds us this weekend:

Do you not know that you are the temple of God,
and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
—1 Corinthians 3:16

In fact, all of our readings for this weekend are focused upon the Church as the temple and the dwelling place of God.  All of our readings lead us to reflect deeply upon our identity and mission as the Church Christ founded.

But what do we believe about the Church?  If you asked 10 separate people what they understand about the Church, it is possible that you could get as many answers.  Some might say the Church is, for them, a family of faith; others might answer that the Church is the place where we worship God.  The Church might be acknowledged as the gathering of believers united in one faith and guided by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Certainly we profess each and every week that the Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic.

Yet there is one notion of the Church that Pope Francis has systematically eliminated from the equation.   Over and over again he has insisted that the Church cannot be self-referential, bent on its own self-preservation.  However we understand the Church and our own experience of parish life, we cannot remain focused on the mere maintenance of the structures and institutions closed in on themselves.  The Church, Pope Francis insists, must strive to move outward to those on the periphery and on the margins.  The Church is necessarily evangelical.

This is nothing new.  Evangelical faith—faith which seeks to announce the Good News of Jesus Christ to all the world in word and deed—is rooted in the New Testament and evidenced down through the centuries in the lives of the saints and in the missionary zeal of those who took Christ’s call seriously.  The Church exists to evangelize, to transform the world and set the hearts of all on fire.  Yet now more than ever we need to revive that missionary zeal and allow the power of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us to lead us out of our comfort zone and into a world desperately in need of healing and new life.

There is a powerful image of what God desires and intends for His Church in the First Reading this weekend from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel.  The prophet has a vision of the temple, and flowing from the threshold of the temple was a river that could not be contained within.  The angel of God, who has brought him to the temple, says to him:

“This water flows into the eastern district down upon the Arabah, and empties into the sea, the salt waters, which it makes fresh.  Wherever the river flows, every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live, and there shall be abundant fish, for wherever this water comes the sea shall be made fresh.”
—Ezekiel 47: 8-10

The angel continues to declare that fruit trees will grow on the banks of the river, providing food, and that their leaves will be a medicine for healing. 

This vision of Ezekiel is remarkable and striking because it is completely different from the way we experience the natural world.  When a river flows into the sea, at the very place where the mouth of the river empties into the ocean, the water is quite brackish.  The vast expanse of the salt water overflows back into that river, and even though the water may be fresh and clear upstream, it is filled with sediment and salt at the place where it begins to empty out. 

Not so in the vision of Ezekiel.  The prophet envisions a river that is so remarkably fresh and powerfully pure that it is able to turn the entire ocean itself into fresh water!  This is a beautiful and striking image of the power of God in the sacraments and the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church, which is able to transform all that is bitter and stagnant and to heal the brokenness and sickness that comes to us from sin.  

The lives of so many people in the world, many who have not yet encountered the God of mercy, forgiveness and love, are filled with sorrow, disappointment and shame.  The message of salvation and the encounter with Jesus Christ through His Body, the Church, has the power to bring refreshment, renewal and new life.  How awesome is the power of God in and through His Church!

Yet if we are honest we can admit that, perhaps too often, this is not how the world experiences the Church.   Is it not true that, at times, the bitterness and the brokenness of the world, along with the reality of sin, flow back from the sea and into the Church?  Is it not the case that the family of God, and our own individual lives, can become tainted with the briny bitterness of sin?

Far from denying this reality, the Second Vatican Council clearly teaches that the Church is at the same time holy and always in need of being purified” (Lumen Gentium, #8).  She is holy because she is one and united to Jesus Christ, Her Divine Bridegroom.  The Church is the holy, spotless Bride of Christ.  Yet, in Her individual members, she experiences the bitterness of sin and is thus, always in need of being purified.”  She needs to be cleansed, made pure and constantly renewed in every age.  That can, and should, happen in many different ways.  Jesus teaches us one particular and effective way in the Gospel this weekend.

St. John recalls how Jesus went into the temple and found those selling oxen, sheep and doves; He saw moneychangers making a business out of the worship of God.  Making a whip out of cords, He drove them all out of the temple: the moneychangers, as well as the animals!  The Fathers of the Church teach us that Christ is cleansing the temple of more than injustice and sin.  He is clearing it out and putting an end to all animal sacrifice so that He might institute one single and eternal sacrifice: the sacrifice of Himself.  This one sacrifice is the one that will ultimately cleanse and purify even the Church, from its beginning until the end of time.

The Church requires a purging and purification that comes through scourging, but not our scourging.  The Church is made holy and perfect through the shedding of blood and total sacrifice, but not our blood and not our sacrifice.  Jesus Christ will ultimately allow Himself to be scourged and afflicted that we may be healed (see Isaiah 53:5), and He will become the sacrifice that brings the forgiveness that each and every one of us longs for and desires.  Here, then, is the source of the river that Ezekiel saw flowing from the temple and into the sea, which it makes fresh.  Jesus Christ is the source of the healing and the power that purifies the Church and, in turn, transforms the world we live in.

When we seek out the Lord for the forgiveness of our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation that He instituted for that very purpose, we are given a new beginning and we hear those life-giving words of Christ: “I absolve you from your sins.”  This new life comes to us from the cross and the sacrifice of God’s only begotten Son.

We are renewed and made whole in the Holy Eucharist only because Christ, with great love, stretched out His arms on the altar of the cross and proclaimed:

This is my Body, broken for you. 
This is my blood, shed in love for you.
Take, receive, and live in me; let me live in you.

A Church that is not purified, one that is as secular as the world around it, is useless.

But a purified Church that is immersed in the life of Christ flowing like a river from the cross, that is the Church healed and made ready to bring God’s medicine to the brokenness of the world we live in.  That is the Church Christ desires, and the Church all of us long to be a part of.

Receiving Christ here in the Most Holy Eucharist, immersed in the love of Christ crucified and purified completely in Him, may we truly become holy, cleansed and ready to go wherever He pleases.  May we be that river, flowing from the temple and out into the world around us, bringing healing, refreshment and hope to all who long to see the face of God.  

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Salvation Through Christ

(20th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on 16 and 17 August 2014 at St. Brigid Church in Johnston, R.I.; See Romans 11:13-32 and Matthew 15:21-28)

In Christmas 2012 I had the wonderful opportunity of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with my dear friends the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist.  At one point we were walking through the ruins of the Temple of Jerusalem, of which Christ had prophesied, “there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2).  

As we continued on our way we came upon a group of Jewish art-history students; they were sitting along the path we were walking on, listening to a lecture about the Temple.  Realizing that we were passing through, they politely shuffled to each side of the walkway to let us by.  Suddenly a young Jewish woman smiled and said, with much kindness and perhaps in an attempt to allay the awkwardness of the moment, “Look, the Christians are parting the Jewish sea!”

The next day I spoke to the sisters about how theologically appropriate that comment was for that brief gathering of Jews and Christians.  The parting of the Red Sea is a remarkable event in Sacred Scripture that Jews and Christians alike both believe and cherish.  In fact, Christians believe that miraculous event is a foreshadowing and a sign of an even greater reality: Baptism.  Baptism?, You might be thinking.  How is Baptism a greater reality than the parting of the Red Sea?

At the Red Sea the People of Israel were being pursued by the Egyptians only to discover that they were completely closed in; in desperation they cried out for the Lord to save them.  Suddenly the waters opened up before them, and the Israelites “went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left” (Exodus 14:22).   As their enemies followed after them the waters closed up again, destroying them and making safe the passage to the Promised Land.

As Christians we believe that this miraculous event, which dramatically portrays the salvation of Israel from certain destruction, is a sign of our own salvation in Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ, who suffers and dies on the cross to destroy the enemies of sin and death, is raised up to new life on the third day.  When we are baptized into Christ, says St. Paul, we are baptized into His death so that we may walk, even now, in newness of life and share in His resurrection from the dead (see Romans 6:3-11). 

The Rite of Christian Baptism expresses this truth beautifully in the blessing and invocation of God over the water:

Through the waters of the Red Sea you led Israel out of slavery, to be an image of God’s holy people, set free from sin by baptism.

This great message of salvation comes to us first, of course, through the Jews.  In our Gospel this morning Jesus Christ announces that He has come specifically for “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).   God reveals His plan of salvation firstly to the Jews.  Unfortunately they did not completely receive Jesus as their Messiah.  To be sure, many of them did.  The Blessed Virgin Mary, a young Jewish girl from Nazareth, received Him tenderly and with great faith.  The Twelve Apostles accepted Him, as did a multitude of disciples throughout the nation of Israel.  But the majority of the Jewish people did not accept Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ.

St. Paul, once a staunch persecutor of the Church, after his conversion would travel from synagogue to synagogue announcing Jesus as the Messiah.  He was often met with resistance and rejection.  In our Second Reading today, in his Letter to the Romans, he is writing to the Gentiles (non-Jewish believers) about this mystery of salvation and speaking specifically to those who have accepted Christ.  He also writes of those who have yet to receive the Anointed One sent by God:

I am speaking to you Gentiles.  Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I glory in my ministry in order to make my race jealous and thus save some of them.
—Romans 11:13-14

St. Paul was a devout Jew.  He announces here his intention to stir up the Jewish people so that they will want the very graces being poured out mercifully on the Gentiles in the person of Jesus Christ.  Paul’s great desire is that the Jews would see the joy of forgiveness and a vibrant newness of life in these Christian believers and be moved with holy envy! 

At the same time St. Paul is reminding the Christian believers of his day—and also those of our own—that God has not forgotten the Jewish people.  This great message of salvation that came first to them is still extended to the Jews with great love.  “For the gifts and the call of God,” says St. Paul, “are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29).  They will always be the chosen people of God and the Messiah, for whom they long, ever longs for them.

These readings are extremely relevant for our times, when this message of salvation offered by God is so little understood.  We have all heard it said, “there are many different ways to God.”  Frequently people will insist that faith is completely subjective: the Jews follow their own particular faith, Christians follow Jesus and the Gospel, the Muslims follow the Quran, Buddhists follow the teachings of Buddha, etc.  In the end, we hear it said, everyone finds his or her own way to God.

But this is not the Gospel God revealed to the world in history and in time.

This is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This is not the Gospel that the Apostles and martyrs of the Church were willing to die for, nor is it the message that has been transmitted down through the centuries in the Roman Catholic deposit of faith.

In fact, there are not many different ways to God. 

There is only one Way: Jesus Christ.

In St. John’s Gospel Jesus Christ reveals plainly to His disciples: “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). 

Our Lord is not being egocentric; He is not appealing to some kind of religious elitism.  He is simply expressing the most essential truth of our salvation: that He alone has the power to redeem humanity and bring us home to eternal life.

Jesus Christ alone has the power, as God, to take on our humanity and bring our fallen human nature to the cross.  Jesus Christ alone is willing to suffer and die for the forgiveness of our sins.  Jesus Christ alone has the power to lay down His life and the power to take it up again (John 10:18), and we who are baptized into Christ have the power to be raised up again to eternal life with Him. 

You might be reading this now and thinking: That sounds really narrow!  What a narrow-minded way of understanding God and salvation.  And I would agree, because that is precisely the word Christ uses when He describes this way which leads to eternal life:

Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
—Matthew 7:13-14

This is not the way God would like the situation to be; it is the way He finds the situation to be.  There are many who move from day to day, without a real and living experience of the awesome presence of God in their lives.  There are many who feel overwhelmed by the guilt and shame that weigh heavily upon them and they long for a different experience of life.  They long for the forgiveness and peace of God.  Truth be told, they long for the mercy and grace that has the power to set their hearts free and flood their souls with light. 

We who have heard this message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and who walk in this narrow way are called to be that light in this world.  We are called to be that salt which preserves those who have found the God who is constantly searching for them.  How desperately the world needs believers to live their Christian faith with passion and vitality!  How desperately the world we live in needs to see the light of Jesus Christ in us!

This past Monday we heard of the tragic and shocking loss of the comic genius Robin Williams.  In the days that followed so many people tried to make sense of that difficult and painful reality of this troubled soul who chose to take his own life.  Perhaps the saddest attempt is the message posted on the marquee of the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles’s Sunset Boulevard, where Williams did stand-up comedy for years.  It read: 

Robin Williams
Rest in Peace
Make God Laugh

But God is not laughing after that terrible tragedy this past week.  God is not laughing any more than the rest of the people who truly loved Robin Williams are laughing.  This is a troubling and sad moment that really calls for a response of faith and not empty witticisms.   

We do not believe, as the marquee suggests, that everyone who dies, whatever the circumstances, suddenly goes to heaven and laughs with God.  What we believe is that God’s mercy is overwhelming and He is constantly reaching out to us until our final breath, and so in hope we pray for Robin Williams.  We commend his soul to God and ask that—through the mercy of God, through the blood of Christ, through the forgiveness God never ceases to offer until the final moment of life—Robin Williams may one day enjoy the laughter of God in that heavenly kingdom. 

How desperately our secular culture needs God!  More than laughter, more than entertainment, more than an empty and fleeting happiness, what we really need is faith! 

If we look to the Gospel this weekend we discover Christ drawing out the gift of faith in the Canaanite woman and in His own disciples.  This woman comes to Christ, begging for Him to heal her daughter.  Jesus’ response is one of silence.  The disciples ask Him to send her away for she is bothering them!  Christ does not heed their request either . . . It must have been very awkward in that room with all that silence.

Suddenly Christ begins to speak to the woman: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).  Both the disciples and the Canaanite woman continue to focus on Christ to see where this will lead.  Whatever they thought they knew about Him, He is testing them and helping them to grow in their desire for the things that matter most.  He often does that.

But then the dialogue seems to take a turn for the worse as Jesus say to the woman:  “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26).  What a response!  Yet this woman, to our amazement, is undaunted.  She must have sensed the great love with which Christ spoke those surprising words and seen the acceptance in His eyes, because she remains with Him.  She does not hesitate, perhaps with a sly smile of her own, to reply “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters” (Matthew 15:27). 

With that the dialogue comes to its conclusion and Christ finally reveals His hand: “O woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish” (Matthew 15:28), and her daughter, we are told, was immediately healed.  Faith brought healing into the world when Christ had made it strong enough to accomplish that healing.  He often does that, too.

Are we as prepared to persevere in our prayer and in our faith?  When we see the world growing darker in the violence of Iraq and in the persecution of so many innocent children, women and men?  When we see the sorrowful consequences of the choices so many people make in the world, and when some of those choices and consequences are ours, are we willing to seek out Christ and persevere in our faith?  Because however dark the world may grow, Jesus Christ will always seek to draw out light and hope for us and for those around us.  Might we be that light and persevere in our faith, like this Canaanite woman, so that the healing of God and the blessing of God will continue to touch this world, so desperately in need of Jesus Christ, the God of our salvation.