Sunday, February 01, 2015

The God Who Overcomes Evil

Peter Paul Rubens-The Resurrection of Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quiet! Come out of him!”
—Mark 1:25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.