Sunday, July 31, 2005

The Wounded Healer

(18th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 31 July, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

There is an old legend in the Jewish Talmud in which a certain Rabbi encounters the prophet Elijah, and he asks him:
“When will the Messiah come?”

The prophet answers him:
“Go and ask him yourself.”

The Rabbi replies:
“Where is he, and how will I know him?”

Elijah says to him:

He is at the gates of the city, sitting among the poor, covered in wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But he unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself: “Perhaps I shall be needed: if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.

This story is used by Catholic Author, Fr. Henri Nouwen, to describe Christ as the Wounded Healer. Far different from the Messiah that many expected, Christ comes as one wounded and broken, eventually dying on the cross to save us.

In this morning’s Gospel we catch a glimpse of the Wounded Healer in a moment of great weakness. Christ has just learned of the death of His cousin, John the Baptist. Naturally He is very disturbed by this and, as any of us would, He withdraws to a deserted place by Himself. No sooner does He arrive in that place, than 5,000 people come to meet Him!

Christ’s reaction to this crowd, in the midst of His own grief, is remarkable. St. Matthew says that, “his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick” (Matthew 14:14). Like the Wounded Healer in that legend from the Talmud, Christ simply rebinds the fresh wound of the death of His cousin, and begins to care for those who are sick and suffering around Him.

His response to the crowd is beautiful, as it reveals the very heart of Christ; and it’s a lesson the disciples would never forget: that even in His own need, Christ is able to meet the needs of others. Moments later, He invites these very disciples to do the same.

They approach Jesus and ask Him to dismiss the crowds while there is still time for them to find something to eat. But Jesus tells them: “Give them some food yourselves” (Matthew 14:16). What an impossible task! How could they possibly feed such a crowd, with five loaves of bread and two fish? Yet what follows is a miracle that we are all familiar with. Christ takes the loaves, blesses them, breaks them, and gives them to the disciples. Then the disciples are able to do the impossible: to feed 5,000 people with a handful of food.

This scene is familiar to us, because it’s the very thing that happens here every Sunday. Each time we gather here, around this altar, we bring before God the offering of ourselves, along with the gifts of bread and wine—offerings that, of themselves, are not enough. And yet we hear, each Sunday, those very same words:

He took the bread and gave you thanks and praise. He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples . . .

At the very heart of the Mass is the offering we make to the Lord, an offering that—of itself—is imperfect. We bring before Him our struggles and our weaknesses; our prayers and our hopes, along with the bread and wine, and offer them up in faith.

And yet, that very offering, as imperfect as it may be, is offered perfectly when it is united to the perfect offering of Christ. Each Mass we offer to the Father the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross, the sacrifice that won for us the forgiveness of sins: perfect obedience, perfect love. This is the miracle of the Eucharist; not something we watch as spectators, but a sacrifice which we are called to participate in, to unite ourselves to.

Let us not hesitate to offer completely everything we have at this Mass: our weaknesses and our strengths, our needs and our prayers, knowing that Christ is able to use even these—when they are united to His cross—to meet the needs of the world that we live in.

For we, too, are called to be wounded healers; not unbinding our wounds all at once and feeling sorry for ourselves, but unbinding them one at a time, offering them up to God—and all the while ready to be used by Christ to meet the needs of others.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

What would you do . . .?

(17th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 24 July, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

“What would you do for a Klondike Bar?” No doubt you have heard this question before and seen the TV commercial, which seems to have no end to the possible things people might do for their favorite chocolate ice cream bar. Being no small fan of both chocolate and ice cream, there are few things I wouldn’t do for a Klondike Bar!

In the Gospel this morning, the question could be asked: What would you do for the Kingdom of Heaven? (Or perhaps more correctly: What should we do for the Kingdom of Heaven?) Jesus describes the Kingdom as a treasure hidden in a field. A man finds that treasure, and “out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). Again, it’s like a merchant who finds that pearl of great price, so “he goes and sells all that he has and buys it” (Matthew 13:46).

The answer to the question, “What would you do?” is quite simple: give everything. The Kingdom of Heaven is so incredible, so awesome, that we are moved to give everything we have just to take hold of it. We hold back nothing when we realize that God has held back nothing from us. That’s the true image of love that God offers to us as His people.

Remarkably, St. Paul says that this kind of love—the love between Christ and His Church—is mirrored in the love that a husband and wife share in marriage (Ephesians 5). It’s important to recognize this; he does not say that God’s love for us is like the love between a priest and his parish, or a bishop and his diocese. He says it’s like the love of a husband and a wife. It reveals the great dignity of Christian marriage, yet also the great responsibility married couples have in living out such a high calling. They are called to give themselves to each other completely, even as Christ gave Himself for us, holding nothing back.

A very important document of the Church talks about this marital love, which is a total love. It calls it “that very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything” (Humanae Vitae, #9). Their love is so complete that it even goes beyond itself, and brings new life into being.

The document that explains so beautifully this great Sacrament of Marriage is called Humanae Vitae, and it was written 37 years ago, almost to the day. But you have probably never heard that quote before. Humanae Vitae is better known for its blanket rejection of all forms of artificial contraception. For that reason, it has become one of the most controversial documents in the Church today. But why?

The teachings of the Church on regulating the size of one’s family, on choosing when and how many children to have, are not excessive nor are they hard to understand. They are based upon that total gift of self, one spouse to another, which fully allows God to be a part of the decision making process.

Built into the very nature of marriage itself is the joy couples share in expressing their love and bringing forth new life. These two powers—the unifying love between two persons, and the creative power to bring about new life—were created to work together from the beginning, and if we want to treasure God's plan, they cannot be separated.

Artificial contraception, by its very nature, separates these two dimensions: the unitive from the procreative. It says, in essence, 'God you are welcome to be a part of our marriage everywhere, but not here.' It excludes the Author of life from an act that—by its very nature—must always be at least potentially open to the gift of life.

And the results of contraception are devastating. Humanae Vitae accurately predicted the drastic increase in the divorce rate, infidelity, abortion, and breakdown of the family's role in society. Most forms of birth control inflict harmful spiritual and physical side effects, almost always upon women. Married love is supposed to be about treasuring the gift of the spouse—body, soul, fertility, everything. Artificial contraception simply does not accomplish this end.

So what is the alternative? This week has been designated by the Church as Natural Family Planning Awareness Week. Natural Family Planning, or NFP, is a natural means by which a married couple can together read the signs of God's plan in the female body. Whether they are seeking pregnancy, or for serious reasons, seeking to avoid it, this natural method honors God's design in a way that contraception cannot.

And the benefits, as any couple that practices NFP will tell you, are outstanding. NFP couples enjoy a 99% rate of effectiveness in avoiding pregnancy, if that is their goal. It’s easy to learn, it helps communication within marriage, and NFP couples have a less than 5% rate of divorce—at least ten times less than the rest of society.

But believe it or not, none of these are the reasons why most couples change from contraception to NFP. The majority of those who make that decision do so because they feel that God is calling them to do it. Which brings us back to our original question: “What would we do for the Kingdom of Heaven?” The decision to practice NFP, as well as any moral decision in our lives, must ultimately be based not on rational facts, or benefits, or fear, guilt and shame, but on love.

We recognize that God has given Himself to us fully, holding nothing back. And this recognition moves us to want to do His will, whether it be in our family, our faith or in our personal life.

Is it easy for married couples to follow God’s will in everything? Of course not. It’s not easy for any of us. Sometimes we are confronted with decisions that require much prayer and a deeper understanding. We have to be willing to admit that we don’t always have all the answers and that we need the wisdom of God.

In our first reading this morning, King Solomon is given great power and authority; he has inherited a kingdom that is vast and expansive. And the first thing he asks for, out of all the things that he could have asked from God, is for wisdom, for “an understanding heart.”

May we be given the grace to ask for that same wisdom and “an understanding heart” in all the decisions of our lives, and may we recognize the value of the life that God has called us to, a sharing in His own Divine life, and a full gift of Himself to us. If people would be willing to do almost anything for a Klondike Bar, what would we be willing to do for the Kingdom of Heaven?

Sunday, July 10, 2005

The Parable of . . .the Spammer?

(15th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 10 July, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

A national study was done recently, which revealed that over 10,000 million pieces of junk mail are sent out each year. That’s enough for every man, woman and child to receive 160 each! And then there’s the email version of junk mail, which even has its own name: Spam. You come back from vacation to realize you have 234 new messages, and only about 5 of them from people that you actually know. “Direct marketing”, they call it; targeting large amounts of people to get at least a few of them to respond.

And so how surprising to discover, in this morning’s Gospel, that God Himself is a spammer! Jesus relates the parable of the sower, revealing the God who sows the seed that is actually His word. He sows this seed everywhere: On the path, on rocky ground, among thorns, and finally on rich soil where it will eventually bear fruit.

Why does God waste His time, and seemingly His word, by sowing it in places where it will not bear fruit? The answer has something to do with the nature of God Himself; He is a God who wants to reach us so much, wants to share His word with us so completely, that He simply sends it to us in every time and place. The miracle of grace is that, sometimes, we hear it.

“Whoever has ears,” Jesus says, “ought to hear” (Matthew 13:9). It takes a great deal of effort, in the world we live in, to hear that word. But that doesn’t keep God from sending it to us every day of our lives.

In one of her reflections on prayer, the great mystic St. Catherine of Siena describes God’s word to us as a fountain, bubbling over with fresh, life-giving water. In the city where she lived, there was a large fountain in the middle of the busy market square. During the day hundreds of people would be walking about that square, and amidst all of the busyness you could see the fountain but you certainly could not hear it.

But if you went there at night, long after all the people had retired to their homes, you could hear the water cascading from that fountain loud and clear. God’s word is a lot like that. We have to be still and quiet ourselves down, in order to hear it.

“Whoever has ears,” Jesus says, “ought to hear” (Matthew 13:9).

One of the greatest challenges that we face today is that we live in a world of many words and many distractions. From advertising, to pointless talk shows on radio and TV, and all of the other distractions of our lives; it can be difficult for us to distinguish God’s word and the importance of His message for our lives, from all the other words and messages that surround us. Yet in the midst of it all, God is sending out His word, trying to reach us and draw us close to Himself.

There is the story of a young teacher who was just beginning his career in a local elementary school. His first Christmas he was overwhelmed with joy at all the gifts he received from his students. Later that night he began to open them and discovered that there were three rectangular packages, identical in size, all wrapped in different colored paper. After opening all three, he found they were all the same thing: handkerchiefs.

After many more years, and many more Christmases, he no longer opened those small, rectangular boxes. He simply stacked them up in the closet and opened them when he needed a new handkerchief.

One winter, as he went to get a new box out for the season, he discovered that it wasn’t the typical cardboard box, but a box made of velvet. He opened that box and found not a set of handkerchiefs, but a gold watch. There was a note with the watch that said: “Merry Christmas and thank you for being the best teacher I’ve ever had.”

God’s word for us is that personal, it is that specific. We all come here, week after week, and listen to the same readings and Gospel passage together. But it will often mean something different for each one of us. For some it might be a word of encouragement, or a word of hope; for others, perhaps an invitation to change or see things in a whole new light. For each of us it is something different, but God’s word to us is as personal as that gold watch. Are we able to quiet ourselves down enough to hear it?

The great message of hope that we have as people of faith is that God never ceases to sow the seed that is His word. Long after we have given up and failed to listen, He keeps on speaking and sending out His word to encourage us, to lift us up when we have fallen, to bring us back into a deeper relationship with Himself.

As He tells us through the prophet Isaiah:

Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth . . . so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.
—Isaiah 55:10-11

We ask God this morning for the grace to cultivate the soil of our hearts, that we might be more receptive to hearing this word, more open to what God is saying to us at this time. And hearing that word, might we go forth from this place to produce much fruit, thirty, sixty and one hundred fold.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Take My Yoke Upon You

(14th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 3 July, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

Webster’s Dictionary defines the word burden as a weight which is carried only with difficulty. Yet for most of us, a burden is a bit more personal than that. Our burden could be the death of a loved one, a broken relationship, an addiction, an illness, problems at home or problems at work; for each of us, it is something different.

There is good news for us in this morning’s Gospel, as Jesus offers an invitation to all who carry a burden of any kind:

“Come to me,” He says. “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”
—Matthew 11:28

What a consolation, to know that Jesus does not leave us to carry our burdens alone. “Come to me,” He says. And then He offers us a curious expression:

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.
—Matthew 11:29-30

Take my yoke upon you. A yoke is a plowing instrument, where two oxen are joined together—yoked together by a simple piece of wood—in order to pull the plow behind them.

There is a legend that, in his carpenter’s workshop, the young Jesus of Nazareth specialized in making these yokes. It was a tricky business, because the wood had to be crafted just right. If the yoke was too tight, it would dig into the animals, choking them. The legend has it that the yokes Jesus made were always perfect; they were made to fit easily, making the burden seem light.

Legend or not, Jesus invites each of us to receive the yoke that He himself has made, the very means of carrying our burdens not by ourselves, but with His help.

I’m sure you have probably heard the James Taylor song Fire and Rain. When it first came out in 1970, it was the song that launched his career. It placed him in the spotlight, and put him on the cover of Time Magazine.

About that same time, Taylor appeared on the Johnny Carson Show, and Carson asked him about the lyrics to that song. In particular, he was curious about one of the verses which said:

Won't you look down upon me Jesus
You got to help me make a stand
You just got to see me through another day
My body's achin' and my time is at hand
And I won't make it any other way

What most people did not know at the time, was that Fire and Rain was written when Taylor was suffering from depression and drug addiction. He shared with Johnny Carson how he wasn’t a very religious person, but he nonetheless felt, somehow, that Jesus was the only one who could help him.

Hopefully we won’t have to come to the point of desperation that James Taylor came to in order to realize that we need Jesus to help us carry our burdens. His invitation is extended to all of us:

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.
—Matthew 11:29

Jesus wants us to come to Him and join our burdens to Him. And when we do that, when we surrender ourselves to Christ, we begin to learn from Him. We become more meek, more humble of heart. We become more like Jesus. That’s the positive side of the burdens we carry. God is able to use even our suffering and our struggles to make us more like Christ.

And even more than that, when we join our burdens to Christ, when we take His yoke upon us, we actually participate in His work of redeeming the world. He allows us to participate in His suffering, to share in the cross that He endured, and so to also share in his mission of redemption.

Everyone here this morning is familiar with the fact that, in May of 1981, an attempt was made to assassinate Pope John Paul II. His recovery was slow and painful, and for many months he was forced to carry a difficult burden, but one that he nonetheless shared with Christ; he was truly yoked to Christ in his suffering and all throughout his recovery.

About two years later, Pope John Paul II released one of his most personal documents, called On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering (Salvifici Doloris). In that document, he talks about the Christian understanding of redemptive suffering, that even our own suffering, our own burdens, can be joined to Christ and offered up for the salvation of others. He says:

In the cross of Christ not only is the redemption accomplished through suffering. [in other words, not only are we redeemed as persons] But also human suffering itself has been redeemed.
—Salvifici Doloris, #19

Our suffering, our burdens, painful as they may be, are not meaningless. Christ is able to give meaning to our lives and even to our crosses, when we unite them to His cross, and take His yoke upon us.

And so whatever burdens we carry today, and in the days ahead, we thank God that He has not left us to carry them alone. We are yoked to Jesus, who helps us to carry our burdens, and even allows us to participate in His work of redeeming our fallen world. Being yoked to Jesus, might we find rest for ourselves, because, as He tells us in this morning’s Gospel, His yoke is easy, and His burden is light.