Sunday, November 18, 2018

Angels Among Us

St. Michael the Archangel, by Raffaello (1483-1520)

(Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on November 18, 2018 at San Giuseppe del Monastero di Clausura, Rome; See Daniel 12:1-3 and Mark 13: 24-32)

Our readings for this weekend focus on the struggle between light and darkness, between the forces of evil and the power of God.  In the Gospel Jesus talks about the distress that will fall upon the earth in the end times, before He comes again:

In those days after that tribulation the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
—Mark 13: 24-25

But the words of Christ are not words without hope.  He notes how the angels of God will be sent out at that time, to “gather together His elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky” (Mark 13:27).

This same mystery is described by the prophet Daniel in our first reading.  He also speaks about “a time unsurpassed in distress since nations began until that time” (Daniel 12:1), truly a period of darkness and suffering.  Yet, Daniel is encouraged by the announcement that he will not be alone in the fight: “At that time there shall arise Michael, the great prince, guardian of your people” (Daniel 12:1).

God never abandons us.  He will always remain true to His promises, and He never leaves us without the protection and care of His holy angels.  We thank God this weekend for the myriad of angels that stand ready to follow God’s every command, and who do more for us than we will ever comprehend on this side of heaven.  

Throughout Sacred Scripture, we find three central activities or functions that occupy the angels of God.  Firstly, the angels worship God.  From the Book of Genesis to the Book of Revelation, constantly we see the angels worshipping God in heaven and singing aloud His praises.

Secondly, the angels carry messages.  The word “angel” is taken from the Greek word for “messenger.”  The Archangel Gabriel carried the message of the Messiah to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  The Archangel Michael will carry the message of peace to Daniel when he is tired and weary.  The angels bring us God’s message of encouragement and love in those places where we need to hear it the most.

But thirdly, and there is no denying it, the angels of God are fully engaged in one final cosmic activity: they fight!  They go to battle for the people of God against the powers of darkness, to protect us and to guide us in the paths of peace.   They will stop at nothing to bring us into the eternal light that God is calling us to.  They do not tire and will never cease to defend us and watch over us on our journey home to God.

St. Teresa of Avila, in her autobiography, tries to discourage any attempts to live a spiritual life as if we were already in heaven.  She writes, “We are not angels but we have a body.  To desire to be angels while we are on earth—and as much on earth as I was—is foolishness” (The Book of Her Life, Ch. 22, #10).  Nonetheless, we know very well how she also imitated the angels in the way she lived her life in the body, especially in these three activities we find in Sacred Scripture.  How is God calling us this weekend, not to be angels, but to imitate the angels by the way we live our Christian lives?  

Because we, too, worship God in this place.  Along with the angels, we sing His praises and adore the Lord.  We worship God who comes to us here in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar, and we receive that “Bread of Angels,” strengthened for the work that God has called us to.

Secondly, we also carry God’s message of hope and salvation to a broken world.  By the way that we live and by the way that we love, we carry the message of the Gospel to those around us.  There are so very many people who long to hear that message.

Finally, we follow the example of the angels when we fight for those who cannot speak for themselves, for those who have been marginalized or who are suffering and in great need.  Only at the end of time will we know how much good was done by our fidelity to our Catholic faith and by the fruitfulness of prayer.  The greatest gift we can bring to those around us is to keep living our vocation well, to stay in the fight, and let God do what He wills by the power of His grace.

“We are not angels but we have a body.”  True enough!  But in our bodies, we pray for the grace to imitate the heavenly messengers, and to trust that God is doing great things in our midst.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Humility, Queen of the Virtues: Checkmate!

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)

(Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on October 21, 2018 at San Giuseppe del Monastero di Clausura, Rome; See Isaiah 53:10-11 and Mark 10: 35-45)

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  He replied, "What do you wish me to do for you?”  They answered him, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.”
—Mark 10:35-37 

The conversation of James and John in the Gospel this morning is always difficult for us to listen to. We may even feel embarrassed for them, but we must admit that we are just as weak, and we prove it many times!  Nonetheless, the Apostles are focused on ambition and are moving in the “opposite direction” than Christ would have them.  The only consolation is that, in the end, they will learn to love and serve as Christ—they will become martyrs, saints—but this morning they are far from that ideal.

Isaiah the Prophet speaks this morning of the attitude of Christ, the Messiah.  Jesus, our Saviour, will not come in an ambitious and proud manner, but in humility and with the desire to serve others. Isaiah writes:

Because of his affliction, he shall see the light in fullness of days; through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he will bear.
—Isaiah 53:11

It is the cross of Jesus Christ that will save the world (more precisely, it is the love of Christ on the cross that saves us). We are exalted, because he was willing to be humiliated. He humbled himself, and in so doing He shows us the way to live a fully Christian life.

In her book, "Way of Perfection," Saint Teresa of Avila writes about the power of humility, a power that can even have an influence on God (as we know it did many times in the life of Saint Teresa!).  She writes, in Chapter 16:

Now realize that anyone who doesn’t know how to set up the pieces for a game of chess won’t know how to play well.  And without knowing how to check the king, one won’t know how to checkmate it either . . . The queen is the piece that can carry on the best battle in this game, and all the other pieces help.  There’s no queen like humility for making the king surrender.  Humility drew the King from heaven to the womb of the virgin, and with it…we will draw him to our souls. 
—St. Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, Ch. 16, #1-2

God cannot resist this “queen of virtues,” Queen Humility!

The holy Mother continues to talk about the three essential virtues: humility, charity and detachment from creatures, but the foundation for Saint Teresa is always, always humility.

There are always opportunities for us to practice this great virtue as we follow Jesus on the way of perfection. The more we grow in humility, Saint Teresa teaches, the more we will grow in charity and in our detachment, allowing us to become more and more like Jesus Christ.

It is Christ who teaches us this morning that we should be ambitious, most zealous for the greatest things imaginable, but He clarifies exactly what we should be ambitious for.  He says:

Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.  For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
—Mark 10:43-45

If we are truly ambitious in the Christian life, perhaps we may also become as humble, detached and full of charity as the Apostles, St. James and St. John. Everything is possible with God, the King who loves us and wants us to draw Him into our souls, where He can reign as He should.  Saint Teresa of Avila, pray for us.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

"For He Is Our Peace"

Statue of St. Agnes at the United Nations, New York

(Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on July 22, 2018 at Santo Spirito in Sassia, Rome and at the University of Dallas, Rome Campus; See Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 23, Ephesians 2:13-18 and Mark 6: 30-34)

One of the most beloved saints of the Church, particularly here in Italy, is the 3rd century virgin and martyr, St. Agnes.  There are several interesting stories that surround her life and martyrdom.  Agnes was a very beautiful young woman, and many men desired her hand in marriage.  When she refused, declaring that Christ was the only Spouse for her, they resented it.  Turning her over to the Roman authorities, she was condemned for the crime of being a Christian.  One legend notes how she was first sentenced to be dragged naked through the streets, but was spared by a miraculous intervention.  Another story relates how she was to be burned at the stake, but every time they put the flame to the wood it failed to light!  Most accounts tell how she ultimately died by the sword, much like St. James, St. Paul and numerous early Christian martyrs.

The most remarkable story about St. Agnes, however, is that she once survived the detonation of an atomic bomb.  Now, I know that sounds quite impossible.  She lived in the late 3rd Century, long before such things were even conceivable.  But I am referring not to the saint herself, but to her statue.

In the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Nagasaki, there was a statue of St. Agnes that stood less than a kilometre away from the place where the atomic bomb landed on August 9, 1945.  It is estimated that some 60,000 persons died as a result of that horrific event, including a large crowd worshiping in the cathedral that day.  The impact of the blast drove the statue of St. Agnes into the ground and it was subsequently covered over with stone, steel and dirt.  It was later recovered and it stands today, not in the rebuilt Cathedral in Nagasaki, but in the world headquarters for the United Nations in New York City.

The statue of St. Agnes is displayed at the UN to remind the world of the centrality of striving for peace and the devastating results that can happen when we fail in that essential task.  But it is also a poignant reminder for the Church, that we are not only to pray for peace, but to persevere untiringly in the task of working for it on every conceivable level.  Our statue of the beloved St. Agnes belongs in the middle of the political struggle for world peace.  The Church has every right and even a responsibility to be fully involved in the political struggle for peace on earth.  For that very reason, four modern Popes have visited the United Nations in New York City. 

Pope Paul VI (soon to be canonised here in Rome this October), was the first to address the UN General Assembly in 1965.  Pope St. John Paul II addressed the UN twice, in 1979 and in 1995.  Pope Benedict XVI went there in 2008, and Pope Francis addressed the UN General Assembly just over two years ago, in September 2015.  

Pope Francis, like all of his predecessors, spoke passionately about the need to strive for peace in our world.  He likewise emphasised the “urgent need to work for a world free of nuclear weapons.”   The world we live in must never again witness another Nagasaki or Hiroshima.  Just two years after the visit of Pope Francis, to the day, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relation with States, addressed the UN and also signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons there. 

This past November, Pope Francis gave the strongest statement to date on nuclear weapons, declaring, “If we also take into account the risk of an accidental detonation as a result of error of any kind, the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned.”   Pope Francis, however, went on to quote the 1963 encyclical from Pope St. John XXIII, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), which gets directly to the heart of the matter:

“Unless this process of disarmament be thoroughgoing and complete, and reach men’s very souls, it is impossible to stop the arms race, or to reduce armaments, or – and this is the main thing – ultimately to abolish them entirely”
—Pope St. John XXIII,
Pacem in Terris, # 113

What Pope Francis and Pope St. John XXIII are expressing is the Church’s vision for peace, which is not merely the absence of war (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2304).  St. Augustine, in his City of God, defined peace as “the tranquillity of order.”  But it is not tranquillity of an external order only, as much as a tranquillity that is rooted within the souls of persons.  

All of our readings for this weekend reflect that longing and yearning for the internal tranquillity that alone can bring harmony to our troubled world.  In the first reading from the Prophet Jeremiah we see the dysfunction of a scattered people driven into exile.  Their hearts are deprived of peace.  To them, God promises a Messiah, “a righteous shoot to David” (Jeremiah 23:5), who will not leave them troubled and harassed but will govern and guide them with wisdom, justice and love.  Our responsorial psalm this morning resounds with the “tranquillity of order” that the Good Shepherd comes to bring:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
beside restful waters he leads me;
he refreshes my soul.
—Psalm 23:1-3

In the Gospel for this weekend, the Apostles recount to Jesus their intense ministerial activity and He immediately calls them away to rest awhile.  Before they arrive at their place of retreat, however, they are met by a veritable crush of people following His every move.  They were pining for His healing presence.   Far from being irritated or put off by the crowd, St. Mark says, “his heart was moved with pity for them, for thy were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34).  They longed for peace in the depths of their souls, and the Prince of Peace gave it to them.

St. Paul, in our second reading this morning, describes the age-old conflict that was evidenced throughout Sacred Scripture: the division between God’s chosen people, the Jews, and all non-Jews or “gentiles.”  St. Paul affirms that Jesus Christ has come to reconcile this divide with His own sacrifice on the cross.  The Apostle goes well beyond the claim that Christ gives us His peace, and insists, instead, that Christ is Himself the embodiment of the tranquillity we long for:

For he is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh, abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims, that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile both with God, in one body, through the cross, putting that enmity to death by it.
—Ephesians 2:14-16

Christ died to give us peace, that tranquillity of order that our world needs so much.  But are we looking for that peace, finding it in the places where God gives it in abundance?  Because He gives us that peace especially here, in the sacraments of the Church, in the teachings of Sacred Scripture, and in the gathering of His faithful.  How very many people today live like sheep without a shepherd, and all the while Christ longs to gather them together and feed them with Himself.

In conclusion, I would like to share a story about perhaps the youngest survivor of the atomic bomb at Nagasaki, not a statue but a little boy.  I say he was one of the youngest because he was not even born yet; he was still a little baby in the womb of his mother.  Fortunately, she was further away from the blast that devastated the city.   Several months later she gave birth to a healthy baby boy whom she named Joseph.  He was a devout and prayerful young man, and it was no big surprise when he eventually felt God calling him to the priesthood.  He went through seminary studies and in 1972 was ordained a Catholic priest.  After many years of faithful service, Fr. Joseph Mitsuaki Takami was ordained a bishop, and in 2003 Pope St. John Paul II appointed him Archbishop of Nagasaki.

It is remarkable to consider that, in the devastation and literal annihilation of nuclear warfare, God was immediately preparing a shepherd to bring healing and help for those who would survive.  He can provide peace for us even in the midst of darkness and difficulties, but He also desires that we extend that peace and establish it in the relationships and activities of everyday life. The broken world we live in longs for God’s peace, for that “tranquillity of order.”  Will we make ourselves available to receive it and then make it known by the way we live?

God, give us the grace to receive this peace that Christ died for and offers in abundance, especially in the sacraments and teachings of our faith, and give us the courage to spread that peace everywhere in the world we live in.

Sunday, July 15, 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 seek ultimate 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.

Sunday, February 25, 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.