Sunday, November 27, 2005

He's coming . . . but is He safe?

(1st Sunday of Advent-Year B; This homily was given 27 November, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

By now I am sure you have seen the ads for the upcoming movie Narnia. Based upon the series of books called the Chronicles or Narnia, by C.S. Lewis, it promises to be one of the best films of the year. If you have ever read those books, you know that it is a fantastic story.

The magical land of Narnia has been taken over by the evil White Witch, and she casts a spell over the whole land, making it a permanent winter. Four young children enter that magical world and soon find out that the great lion, Aslan, is on the move and he’s coming to break the spell and overthrow the White Witch once and for all.

The story of Narnia—as you may already know if you are a C.S. Lewis fan—is written really as an allegorical tale or metaphor for the story of our redemption. The great lion, Aslan, represents Christ who has come to save us from sin and evil—the “spell” cast over our own world—and to give us new life, a new relationship with God. It is a beautiful and highly symbolic story.

There is a powerful scene towards in the beginning of the Chronicles or Narnia, when the children first hear about the coming of Aslan. They are talking to one of the animals of Narnia, Mr. Beaver, and soon discover that Aslan is a lion.

Naturally the children are a bit nervous about meeting up with a lion, so they ask Mr. Beaver: “Is he safe?” Mr. Beaver looks at them for a moment, and he answers, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

Today we begin the holy season of Advent, a time to prepare for the coming of Christ, the King of Kings. It’s a great opportunity for us to remember the real story of our faith. What we celebrate is the coming of the one who is not afraid to step into our lives and challenge us to live the Gospel in a radical way, even to the point of giving Him our very lives. That is who we wait for this Advent. Christ is coming, and He’s certainly not safe. But He is good.

Christ comes into a world that resists Him, even rejects Him, but remains ever in need of the help and healing that only He can give. He comes to break the power of evil in this world, to destroy sin by His own suffering and death. Christ is willing to go to the cross, to suffer a bloody and excruciating death in order to bring us back into a right relationship with God.

There is nothing safe about that! When Christ comes, He means business. That is why He tells us four times in the Gospel this morning to be watchful! Be alert! To be ready for Him when He comes.

The prophet Isaiah—who we read from every Advent—understood what the coming of the Lord meant, and even more importantly, why He was coming. In that first reading this morning, Isaiah laments the condition of the people of Israel who are dwelling in the land of captivity, far from their homeland, and far from God. He says:

Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful;all of us have become like unclean people,all our good deeds are like polluted rags;we have all withered like leaves,and our guilt carries us away like the wind.
—Isaiah 64:4-5

Isaiah understands their condition; he knows why they are in captivity. They have sinned against the Lord. Isaiah knows that. But he also knows the solution. With great longing for God he cries:

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,with the mountains quaking before you.
—Isaiah 63:19

That God would rend the heavens and come down; that is the only thing that will bring hope and healing to the human condition so enslaved by sin; that God Himself would rend the heavens, come down to this earth, and set us free. He’s done that! That is the coming that we celebrate each Advent, as we sing:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

He is coming. Emmanuel is coming, and He’s certainly not safe. But He’s good. Are we ready for Him? Are we watching? The verb Christ uses in the Gospel, when He commands us to be watchful and alert, is an active verb. It does not mean that we watch like we are watching TV. We watch as people who are in need of a redeemer, and as people who are expecting one to arrive.

Like the prophet Isaiah, we are ready to admit that we are sinners in need of forgiveness, we are captives longing to be set free. Advent is a time when we make our hearts ready for the coming of Christ by clearing out the things that get in the way of our relationship with Him.

This Advent, I would recommend one gift in particular that we can give to ourselves that we will never be sorry for, something that will open our hearts up to the coming of Christ like never before: Confession. It is the very sacrament instituted by Christ to take away our sins; it brings us healing, a new beginning, and a restored relationship with God.

It may be a little uncomfortable to return to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, especially if it has been a while since we have been. But maybe Jesus wants us to be a little uncomfortable this Advent; maybe that is the very thing we need to help us grow closer to God and to make us more like Christ.

After all, He is coming, and although He may not be safe, He is good. Let us make these next four weeks the greatest preparation we possibly can as we watch and wait for the coming of the King of Kings.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Response of Gratitude

(This homily was given Thanksgiving Day, 24 November, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

Today we celebrate a holiday that is unique to us as Americans; no other nation shares this Thanksgiving Day with us. But thanksgiving is also distinctive to us as Christians. All throughout the Scriptures and in the tradition of our faith we are called to be a people of thanksgiving—to cultivate an attitude of gratitude—thankful to God and to those around us.

But if we are honest we can admit that it is not always easy to be thankful. It is not something that always comes naturally to us. In the Gospel this morning, the 10 lepers are given the “Thanksgiving Test,” and 90% of them fail it! Jesus points out that the only one who returned to give thanks was one who was least expected to do so. He was a Samaritan.

The Jews believed that the people of Samaria—who did not worship God in Jerusalem but in a separate place, on a separate mountain—that they were not worshiping God properly. They had gotten it all wrong. But as we can see in the Gospel, this Samaritan seems to be doing quite well. Jesus holds him up as a model for those who would praise God. And so, we can ask ourselves this morning: What can we do to imitate him? What did the thankful leper do that made him such a model of thanksgiving?

I would say that the answer to that question is: absolutely nothing! That’s the point. Thanksgiving is not something that begins with us. It is, above all, a response to a gift given. It is our response to God for all the things He has given us. That is where thanksgiving comes from.

I would like to share a story that I think illustrates this point. It is a strange story; a strange, tragic and beautiful story. It happened just a year ago, last Thanksgiving. A group of college students home for the holiday came together to celebrate on a Friday night. They stole some credit cards and really began to charge up a storm. They bought DVD’s, video games; they even bought a Thanksgiving turkey!

At the end of the night, one of them—19 year old Ryan Cushing—decided to throw that turkey out the window of the car they were driving in. Picture that: a flying turkey. It would seem even comical if not for the tragic consequences of that careless act. He had thrown the turkey at another car coming in the opposite direction. It hit the windshield at a high rate of speed and struck the driver of that car, Victoria Ruvolo, who was nearly killed in the accident.

She woke up two weeks later, in a hospital with a tube attached to her throat, and looked into the mirror at a woman who she did not recognize. The impact had shattered both of her cheekbones and her jaw. It fractured one of her eye sockets, crushed-in her esophagus; doctors were afraid that she may have suffered minor brain damage. It took hours of surgery and months of painful recovery to reconstruct her face from the damage that had been done.

Just this last August, Ryan Cushing had his day in court. As I am sure you can imagine, the judge was ready to throw the book at him. The maximum sentence for his crime was 25 years in prison, and there was every indication that he would be given all of it . . . Until Victoria Ruvolo made her way to the front of the courtroom and begged the judge for leniency.

Later on, at his sentencing, she said to Ryan Cushing and to a crowded courtroom:

There is no room for vengeance in my life, and I do not believe a long, hard prison term would do you, me, or society any good.

In the end, Ryan Cushing got 6 months in jail instead of that 25 year sentence. Outside the courtroom he met Victoria Ruvolo for the first time, face to face. He was sobbing as he said that he was sorry and he begged her to forgive him. She embraced him, patted him on the back, and said: “It’s OK; I just want you to make your life the best that it can be.”

Where did she ever find the grace and strength—after all that she had been through—to reach out to that young man like that? Last month, at that sentencing, she read a statement in which she described all the pain and suffering she had endured from the events of that tragic night. But then she went on to say:

But despite all the fear and pain, I have learned from this horrific experience, and I have much to be thankful for. All of this has had a profound effect on me; I have learned to truly appreciate the preciousness of life. Each day when I wake up, I thank God simply because I am alive.

She received the grace and strength to reach out to Ryan Cushing because she realized all that God had given to her. She was responding to all that she had received, and to the preciousness of life. Later, outside the court, she said:

I gave him a second chance. God gave me a second chance at life, and I passed it on.

That’s gratitude in action. That is what it means to be thankful. Think of all the things she could have focused on, all the negative things that happened to her. Instead she focused on the gifts that God had given her, and she was grateful.

This Thanksgiving we take some time to reflect on all that we have been given; to see all that God has bestowed on us, most especially the precious gift of life. How are we responding to that gift? But, perhaps more importantly, we could ask: Who are the ones who might benefit this Thanksgiving by our response of gratitude for all that we have received from God?

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Parable of the Talents

(33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 13 November, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

Anyone who has spent enough time in the working world would certainly agree that not all bosses are created equal. I worked many different jobs before entering the seminary, and in that time I worked for dozens of different people; some of them were excellent bosses, and some of them were not.

But in the parable Jesus tells this morning we encounter a boss—or the Master, as Jesus refers to him—who is quite different than anyone we would ever meet in our 9 to 5 workday. This Master, Jesus tells us, is going on a journey so he gathers the servants before him and entrusts them with everything he owns.

He gives them each a certain number of talents, expecting a return. In the end he receives a mixed response; it turns out very positive for the first two servants but disastrous for the third one. That final servant—upon the Master’s return—comes forward and says:

Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.
—Matthew 25:24-25

A demanding person. Harvesting where he did not plant, gathering where he did not scatter. Not a very positive picture, is it? But is it an accurate one? Is this what the Master is all about, or is there something more?

The picture Jesus paints for us of the Master is quite different than the one the servant describes. In fact, I would suggest that there are three things worth noting about the Master in the Parable of the Talents, three things that the last servant would have been wise to consider before he went and buried his talent in the ground.

Firstly, the Master is one who has an intimate knowledge of the servants he is in charge of. Jesus says that he:

Called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one—to each according to his ability.
—Matthew 25:14-15

To each according to his ability. This is a Master who knows his servants. He knows their strengths and weaknesses, what they can do and what they can’t. He gives them exactly what they need and exactly what they can handle, “each according to his ability.” God knows us intimately. One of the most comforting psalms in the Bible, Psalm 139, puts it this way:

LORD, you have probed me, you know me: you know when I sit and stand; you understand my thoughts from afar. My travels and my rest you mark; with all my ways you are familiar.
—Psalm 139:1-3

That is intimacy; that is how God knows us. The amount of faith we have been given right now in our lives is exactly what we need and exactly what we can handle. The question we need to ask is: Are we living out that gift of faith? Is our faith bearing fruit in our lives and in the lives of the people around us?

Secondly, the Master is one who has an incredible trust in the ones he has chosen. Jesus tells us that the Master gave the servants the talents and then simply went away. He does not stay around to micro-manage the servants or check up on them every five minutes. He trusts them to do what is right and just with the talents he gave them.

St. Thomas Aquinas says that our freedom is one of the things that makes us most like God; our ability to make correct choices, to be creative in responding to the initiative of God’s grace. Each of us will live out our faith differently; each of us will share our faith in a unique way with the people of this world. But God expects us to have a living faith that impacts our daily lives and makes a difference in the world around us. He is trusting us to do exactly that.

Finally, the Master is one who has the greatest of intentions. We discover, in the first two servants, what the master had in mind all along. He says to each of them:

Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master's joy.
—Matthew 25:21&23

The reason why he entrusted the talents to them in the first place, the driving force behind his incredible trust in these servants, was so that—in the end—they might share in their master’s joy.

That is all God wants for us; he does not have any other plan; there is no ulterior motive. God simply gives us life and faith and He trusts us to use it, to live fully and totally according to His will so that we can become more and more like Him here on this earth and live forever with Him in the world to come; simply to share the Master’s joy.

So if all that is true, if that is what the Master is all about, then shouldn’t we be willing to take a chance in this life and live out our faith more completely in this world?

The Parable of the Talents is meant to teach us about the great gift that we have been given as people of faith, but also of the tremendous responsibility we have in living out that faith. In the end we will be judged according to how we did that.

When Christ comes again, will He find us like that servant who was afraid of the Master because he was a “demanding person” and went and hid his talent in the ground? Or will He find servants who recognize that their Master knows them intimately, trusts them completely, and wants nothing more for them than to share in their Master’s joy?

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Regard the End

(32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 6 November, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

There is a classic short story by the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy called “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” In that story the main character suddenly discovers that he is dying, and the whole tale focuses on his struggle of coming to grips with that reality. Towards the beginning, Tolstoy describes a medallion that Ivan Ilyich wears, hanging from the chain of his pocket watch, and inscribed on that medallion is the Latin phrase: Respice Finem (regard the end).

It is supposed to be a reminder that just as we cannot stop the hands of time, we will all one day come to the end of life. We must all “regard the end.” But the irony is that all throughout the story, Ivan Ilyich does anything but “regard the end.” He is simply unprepared—even unwilling—to face that reality until the very bitter end.

We have come to that time again in the Church’s liturgy, the end of the liturgical year, when we begin to look at what the Church calls “the last things.” Traditionally the last things are death, judgment, heaven and hell (things we do not usually talk about over our morning cup of coffee).

Yet all of these “last things” are present in some way in our Gospel this morning. Jesus tells the Parable of the Ten Virgins: five of them wise and the other five, foolish. And the only thing He gives us to distinguish between the two is that the wise virgins have oil for their lamps and the foolish ones do not. In the end, that’s what makes all the difference.

The bridegroom is delayed in coming; suddenly he arrives, and Jesus says that “those who were ready [the ones who had the oil] went into the wedding feast with him” (Matthew 25:10). Those who were ready.

What does it mean to be ready? What does it mean to be prepared to meet the bridegroom, who is Christ? It means, essentially, that we “regard the end.” We understand what the end means for us as Christians, what Christ wants us to understand about our life here on this earth, about death, but ultimately about eternal life in the world to come.

One of the challenges we face as Christians in our current culture is what some have called the “suppression of death.” So much of what we see and read and experience everyday sends us the message that “This life is all there is.”

We have thousands of items on the market that help us look younger, hide aging, slow down the dying process, yet all the while the clock is ticking and we are trying with all our might to ignore that medallion swinging from our watch chain, telling us to regard the end. Respice Finem.

You might remember the movie "Meet Joe Black" that came out a number of years ago. A successful businessman suddenly receives a mysterious visit from death. The very first thing he begins to do is bargain with him! “Hey, can we make a deal here.” Death is something to be avoided at all costs.

But death, for us as Christians, is not the end of all things. In fact, our faith teaches us that it is just the beginning. The five wise virgins in the parable come to the end of their journey here, the bridegroom arrives and they go inside with him to the wedding feast. Their joy has only just begun; there is a whole wedding feast before them. That’s the kind of attitude towards death that we need to have here in this life.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, in his book From Death to Life, talks about the Christian meaning of death. He says that we must see it as a transition, not an end in itself. To see it as an end only is to miss the entire point of our life in Christ.

He says that “a living hope in life after death . . . determines a responsibility for [our] life here on earth, ” that we are willing to make sacrifices and renounce our own will to serve others. We are able to see ourselves as pilgrims here on this earth, having our hearts set on the world to come. Heaven is the final destination for the Christian; not this world.

To know and understand our final end radically changes the way that we live in this world. All of life is a workshop in which we prepare for that eternal life with God (Nicolas Cabasilas, 14th century).

God wants to share His very life with us for all eternity, to give us a share in His own divine life. He does this at Baptism, but we need to constantly keep that relationship open and be willing to grow in it here on this earth, so that we will be ready to enjoy it with Him forever in the life to come. We spend our lifetime responding to His invitation, drawing closer to Him and nurturing that friendship with God that He himself has begun in us.

The wise virgins are the ones who have done that. They have begun already the preparation for that eternal wedding feast. That is the significance of the oil. It is the divine life that they have kept burning within them.

The foolish virgins ask them for some oil but they refuse. At first glance, it seems un-Christian of them, doesn’t it? But if we see what Christ means by the oil, we know that they simply cannot share it with another. How can someone give to another their own personal relationship with God? How can you share with someone a lifetime of prayer and growth in virtue, a lifetime of responding to the offer of divine grace?

The life God calls us to in eternity begins here on this earth. It is not something that can be turned on like a light switch at the end of our lives. We begin now to cultivate that real and living relationship with God. That is what it means to be prepared for eternal life. That is what it means to “regard the end.”

It is the foolish virgins who are left outside. They call out to the Lord and say, “Lord, Lord, open the door for us!”, but he says to them instead: “I do not know you.” Those are perhaps the saddest words in all of Scripture. He does not know them because they have not let themselves be known.

This morning we need to ask how we can better prepare ourselves for that wedding feast Christ is calling us to. What is God asking us to do in our lives so that we will come to know Him more intimately? How can we live more completely in this life with our hearts set on the life to come?

Come, Lord Jesus, come into our lives and help us to “regard the end”, and to know that our true home, our final end, and our ultimate destination is eternal life in You.