Sunday, November 26, 2006

Christ the King, Redeemer of Man

(Feast of Christ the King-Year B;This homily was given 25 & 26 November, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Revelation 1:5-8 and John 18:33-37)

Our Gospel for this Feast of Christ the King is the mysterious passage from St. John’s Gospel, where Christ is questioned before Pontius Pilate. It is mysterious because it involves the Son of God being interrogated by a man, but it is also mysterious because it is difficult to understand just where Pilate is coming from.

Is he serious and sincere as he questions Christ? Is he simply curious about who this Jesus of Nazareth is, or is he outright sarcastic? Whatever the case may be, one thing is perfectly clear: Pontius Pilate does not realize who Christ really is.

Christ describes Himself as a King whose “kingdom does not belong to this world” (John 18:36). He certainly is a King in the world, but His kingdom is not of this world. With that, a light seems to dawn for Pilate. He asks, “Then you are a king?” And Jesus responds:

For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.
—John 18:37

It is a response that is unfortunately lost on Pilate, but it stands at the heart of today’s Feast of Christ the King, and is fundamental for understanding who Christ really is: the one who “testifies to the truth.”

In 1979, just a few months after being elected Pope, John Paul the Great issued his first encyclical letter: Redemptor Hominis—The Redeemer of Man. Re-iterating many of the foundational principles of the Second Vatican Council, he described how the key to understanding the history of humanity, and to understanding humanity itself, is found completely only in Jesus Christ. He alone is “the center of the universe and of history” (Redemptor Hominis, #1).

Directly paraphrasing Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, he went on to describe Christ as the one who reveals who God is, since He is fully Divine, and who also reveals the truth about man, since he is also fully human (Gaudium et Spes, #22, Redemptor Hominis, #8).

Again, we can listen to the words of Christ to Pontius Pilate:

For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.

Christ comes to testify to, or bear witness to, the truth about God and the truth about man. That truth is this:

That God created us, He loves us and has redeemed us in Christ; even when we had turned away from him, even when we had sinned, God still sent Christ to suffer and die on the cross to save us so that we might live with Him forever in heaven . That is who God is, as revealed by Christ.

The truth about man is directly related to that. Because Christ came and took on our human nature, He has also raised us “to a dignity beyond compare” (Redemptor Hominis, #8). We who have been baptized into Christ have been made a part of God’s own Kingdom: Sons and Daughters of God, kings and queens in a sense, as members of His kingdom.

These are not just the pious thoughts and sentiments of Pope John Paul the Great, nor are they merely theological reflections from the Second Vatican Council. They are truths that are found all throughout the Scriptures.

In our second reading for the Feast of Christ the King, from the Book of Revelation, we hear that:

Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood . . .
—Revelation 1:5

That is the first truth Christ reveals to us, about who God is: The one “who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.” The second truth follows directly after that: He is also the one “who has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father” (Revelation 1:6).

We have been made into a kingdom, raised to “a dignity beyond compare.” Because of our baptism, we share in the very life of God. What more could we possible want than that?

You may have read the book “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” from C. S. Lewis. It is one of the books in a series called The Chronicles of Narnia and was recently made into a movie.

The story—an allegory for the Christian faith—is an endearing tale of four children who enter the mystical Land of Narnia, and meet there a lion named Aslan, who is the King of Narnia. He is the one who will eventually give his life for the sake of the people, and obviously represents Christ.

These four children serve along side Aslan, and they, too, give completely of themselves for the sake of the King and for the Land of Narnia. In a very moving scene at the end of the book, Aslan has them sit in four thrones, and he places a crown on each of their heads. With great solemnity he says,

“Once a king or a queen in Narnia, always a king or a queen.”

C. S. Lewis, a devout Christian, understood the dignity of Baptism. It is not something that can easily be revoked when we fail; it is not something we can easily lose because of our sins and weaknesses. But it is something we are called to live up to.

That is our challenge today on this Feast of Christ the King, to fulfill what John Paul II calls our “kingly service” (Redemptor Hominis, #21), following in the footsteps of Christ the King, who came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

We do that—Redemptor Hominis continues—in two very practical ways. First and foremost, by being faithful within our own vocation. Whether we are called to the priesthood, religious life or the married life, we are called to be faithful and fruitfull right where God has called us.

Secondly, we fulfill our “kingly service” by using our freedom wisely. We are called to use our freedom, not for selfish gain, but to love and serve God and others. “Christ teaches us that the best use of freedom is charity, which takes concrete form in self-giving and in service” (Redemptor Hominis, #21).

Might we be found faithful in following the footsteps of Christ the King in our own kingly service here on earth, and come to discover the truth that: “Once a king or a queen in the Kingdom of God, always a king or a queen.”

Thursday, November 23, 2006

It's A Wonderful Thanksgiving

(Thanksgiving-Year B;This homily was given 23 November, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Luke 17:11-19)

There is a very powerful line in one of T.S. Eliot’s famous works called the “Four Quartets.” It is found in the final poem, “Little Gidding,” and it has to do with pilgrimages and journeys of faith.

The point that Eliot makes is that the purpose of a pilgrimage is not to change the way we look at the place we are traveling to, be it Jerusalem, or Rome, or even someplace local, like LaSalette Shrine. The purpose of a pilgrimage is to change our perspective about our point of origin. It is to return back to the place we began, and see that place with new eyes; to have a renewed vision of who and where we are.

The line is both powerful and beautiful. He writes:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
—T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” (No. 4 of ‘Four Quartets’)

We find that journey of faith in our Gospel this morning in the story of the ten lepers healed by Jesus. St. Luke tells us they began that journey in a very awkward, even painful, position before Christ. He says “they stood at a distance from him” (Luke 17:12). They were not allowed to approach him, on account of their disease and condition; they were social outcasts who could only stand “at a distance.”

And yet they were close enough to cry out for help, and to ask Christ for healing. Jesus quickly answers that prayer. He says to them, “Go show yourselves to the priests” (Luke 17:14), and in that very act of obedience they come to experience the healing so desperately longed for.

One of them, recognizing not only what has happened but Who has brought about that tremendous gift, returns to the place he started. But now everything has changed. He no longer stands off “at a distance” from Christ. He draws very close indeed, and falls down at the feet of Jesus in praise, adoration and overwhelming gratitude. He has come to understand what T. S. Eliot meant:

The end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

It is during this time of the year that we begin to hear the same story, told in so many different ways. Whether we like it or not, the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol,” is already showing in theatres. And how many times in the days and weeks ahead will we see the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” playing on TV? Really it is just the same story, with the names and the places changed.

Ebenezer Scrooge makes that journey through Christmas past, present, and future, only to come right back again to where he started on that cold Christmas Eve. But he suddenly sees the world he lives in a whole new light. He has a new understanding of himself and is overwhelmed with joy.

George Bailey, in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” comes to the end of himself and regrets that he was ever born. He thinks he has no reason to live and makes a decision to end his life entirely. And yet suddenly he is shown what life would look like without him, and everything changes. He comes back, in the end, right to the place where he started and has a renewed sense of gratitude for his job and his own place in that small town. He is filled with love for his family and all that he has been given.

This Thanksgiving, God invites us to make that same journey of faith and that pilgrimage of gratitude, to come to a new vision of all that we have received from Him. We do that in a very practical way. Sometime today, I would suggest that we find some quiet place to sit down in the presence of God and to thank Him for five things that we have been given.

It might be our family, our friends, or our Catholic faith. We may have had a great year filled with many blessings, so we should be thankful to God for that gift. Or perhaps we have had the worse year ever. Maybe we have experienced tragedies or difficulties, but we made it through. Because of our faith, or our friends and family, we were able to move forward with hope. Today, thank God for that. Whatever it may be, think of five things that you are thankful for today.

And then, in the days and weeks ahead, whenever the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” comes on the TV or you hear them advertised on the radio, thank God for five more things. Or maybe you just remain thankful for the same five things.

This day we simply ask God to guide us more completely into that journey of faith and pilgrimage of gratitude, that we may come to realize, along with George Bailey, Ebenezer Scrooge, and the leper in St. Luke’s Gospel, that:

The end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Schindler's List and the Law of the Gift

(32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B;This homily was given 11 & 12 November, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read 1 Kings 17:10-16 and Mark 12:41-44)

It is perhaps the most beautiful and profound statement of the entire Second Vatican Council. It would later become one of the major themes of the life and pontificate of John Paul the Great; and it provides the only context that allows us to understand the radical generosity we find in the first reading and in the Gospel this morning.

It is called the “Law of the Gift” and it is found in Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes:

“Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”
—Gaudium et Spes, #24

Describing how God is a Trinity of persons, each of them giving themselves to the other in love from all eternity, Gaudium et Spes went on to proclaim how we—made in that very same image and likeness—are created for love and to give ourselves away in love. By nature, we are creatures who are fulfilled only by giving to others: our families, those around us, and most especially, God Himself.

“Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”

We discover the “Law of the Gift” in the first reading this weekend, in that widow from Zarephath. Far from sitting down with her son to starve to death (as she laments to the prophet Elijah), she gives generously everything she has and instead continues not only to live, but the thrive and flourish. She has life abundantly, because she gave with great abundance to the man of God, Elijah.

The widow in the Gospel, who “contributed all she had” (Mark 12:44), is held up by Christ as the very icon of generosity and faithfulness.

And if we take a moment to consider this Veteran’s Day Weekend, and all the men and women who served and continue to serve our country so faithfully, we discover that they, too, live by the “Law of the Gift.” We honor and remember them today, not because of what they kept for themselves or what they accomplished for themselves, but for what they gave to obtain the freedoms we celebrate and enjoy today.

“Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”

You may have seen the movie, Schindler’s List, which tells the remarkable and true story of Oscar Schindler. Born in Czechoslovakia, as a young man Schindler followed the coattails of the German army into occupied Poland at the start of the Second World War. He quickly enmeshed himself in the ranks of the Nazi party, not because he espoused their ideals or wanted to follow their way of life, but because he saw a tremendous opportunity to make an awful lot of money.

He was placed in charge of a factory located about 60 kilometers from Auschwitz, where he “employed” over a thousand Jews. Basically, it was slave labor; he had to pay them next to nothing and he hardly fed them anything. He made a mint in that place.

Yet, somewhere in the middle of the war Schindler began to realize the absolute brutality of the Nazis, that they had no intention of merely holding the Jews captive or exploiting them. Their “master plan” was to simply exterminate them, every Jewish man, woman, and child. That shocked Oscar Schindler into reality.

He began to use his influence and contacts in the Nazi party, as well as his money, to save the lives of the very people he had exploited. It was dangerous business, entailing that he risk not only his resources and his name, but also his very life.

Twice Oscar Schindler was arrested under suspicion that he was working to save Jews. Both times his influence, and his money, got him out of it. Each time he immediately returned to that factory and continued what he had been doing: literally buying time, and buying Jewish people from the Nazis.

If you have seen the movie then you remember the haunting final scene, when the war ends and Schindler takes account of the whole ordeal. He gets out of his car, along with his friend, Stern. The factory and all the workers are off in the background. He turns to his friend and he says:

“I could've got more. I could've got more, if I'd just...I could've got more...”

His friend says, “Oscar, there are eleven hundred people who are alive because of you. Look at them.”

But Oscar Schindler won’t hear a word of it. He continues:

“If I'd made more money...I threw away so much money, you have no idea. If I'd just ...I didn't do enough.”

His friend continues to argue, in vain, as Schindler begins to look around him at the car they drove up in. “This car,” he says. “Why did I keep the car? Ten people, right there. Ten people, ten more people.”

He rips a swastika pin from his lapel, and says, “This pin, two people. This is gold. Two more people…At least one. One more. One more person. A person, Stern. For this. I could've gotten one more person and I didn't. I didn’t...”

Of course, no one would fault Oscar Schindler for keeping his car or a gold pin. But the point is, he convicts himself. He is himself convinced that he could have and should have given more. He was aware of the “Law of the Gift,” that we are made to give ourselves completely to others, to God. He had come to understand that “Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”

In the New Testament, in the Acts of the Apostles, there is a compelling and rather disturbing story about a married couple named Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). It occurs at the very foundations of the early Church, when many were selling off their lands and property and laying the money at the Apostles’ feet.

Now, nobody was under an obligation to do that. Nevertheless, many willingly gave all they had to benefit the work of the Gospel. Ananias and Sapphira had sold their property, and they, too, chose to bring their money to the Church. But they decided to keep some of it for themselves, and simply tell the others that they had given all.

St. Peter confronts Ananias and explains how the money was his, before and after he sold his property. He could have done anything he wanted with it. But what he chose to do was lie, and for what? St. Peter says to him, “You have lied not to men, but to God” (Acts 5:4). At that, Ananias drops dead!

A few hours later, his wife Sapphira comes before St. Peter, completely unaware of what just happened. He asks her about the amount, and she confirms that her and her husband have given over the whole thing. St. Peter replies: “The footsteps of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out” (Acts 5:9). And then she drops dead! Again, a very disturbing story.

Yet that scene is displayed, in living color, near a side altar, in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. A friend of mine gives tours of St. Peter’s, and one day he was doing that very thing and explaining what is called “The Altar of the Lie.” A woman in the group seemed a bit upset, and asked,

“Why on earth would the Church include that scene in a mosaic for this basilica? Of all the beautiful scenes in the Acts of the Apostles or the rest of the New Testament, why that one?”

My friend didn’t miss a beat, but simply responded that the reason for that scene in this church was because of its location. He motioned to a doorway across from the “Altar of the Lie,” and said:

Those doors over there are the doors to the sacristy, where every priest—whether he be newly ordained or a cardinal of the Church—gets ready for Mass. And every priest who comes out of that sacristy door, no matter which altar he is heading to, must first look at that scene of Ananias and Sapphira before he celebrates the most sacred mystery of our faith. And he must ask himself: ‘Have I given everything? Have I given everything, like I said I would on the day of my ordination, or have I held something back from God, or from the people of God.’

Each one of us, whether priest or not, must ask that same question before we approach the Eucharistic table this morning. Not because God will strike us down, like Ananias and Sapphira; and not because God is greedy and wants to take from us the very things we are reluctant to give.

But because we are created to give completely of ourselves and we will not be fulfilled nor complete until we do so; like the Trinity, three Persons eternally giving themselves to each other in love, we are made to give ourselves completely away, to our families, to the people around us, and to God Himself. Might we look into our hearts and into our lives this day, and simply give everything—our will, our desire, all that we can muster—because “Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Secret of Life

(31st Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B;This homily was given 5 November, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Deuteronomy 6:2-6 and Mark 12:28-34)

What do you think is the “secret of life”? Is it hard work? Loyalty? Is it family? Scientists tell us the “secret of life” is found in DNA; if we can understand DNA then we can unlock the great mystery of life itself.

If you are a Country Music fan then you have probably heard the popular song by Faith Hill called “The Secret of Life.” It is about two guys sitting down at a bar looking for the answer to that question. They come up with all kinds of possible solutions: The secret of life is . . .

A good cup of coffee
'Keep your eye on the ball'
Monday Night Football

I kind of lean towards that last one, truth be told! But for a pious Jew in Jesus’ time, the “secret of life” could be found nowhere else but in the Law of God, in the commandments God had given to the people of Israel through Moses on Mt. Sinai. Therein, the devout Jew would say, lies the secret of life.

But the question of the day would be: Which one? There were 613 different commandments in the Torah. It was a commonly debated question, which one of these was the greatest. Any Rabbi worth his salt would have a strong opinion on that topic. And so the Scribe approaches Jesus in the Gospel this morning and asks Him: What do you think?

Which is the first of all the commandments?
—Mark 12:28

Typically, Jesus answers that question very differently than they expected. He offers a very traditional answer and an entirely new one, at the same time. Jesus begins His response by reciting the Shema.

The Shema is one of the core professions of the Jewish faith, and we heard it this morning in our First Reading from the Book of Deuteronomy. Shema is the Hebrew word for “Listen!” or “Hear!” and Jesus recites the Shema word for word when He says:

Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.
—Mark 12:29-30; (cf. Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

It was a very traditional response that most Jews would have agreed with. The Shema was recited by devout Jews three times as day. They would write it out and wear it on their garments, or place it in small boxes on the doorway of their home to remind them—each time they came and went—of the great commandment to love God.

But Christ also adds a second commandment, so they will understand that the way of life God calls us to cannot be easily summarized in just one passage of Scripture or just one of the commandments. He says that:

The second is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
—Mark 12:31

In that is the novelty or the nuance that Christ offers, His own particular contribution to the question about the greatest commandment. He combines the two commandments—love of God and love of neighbor—as one, linking them both together with the single word: love. To love both God and neighbor is greater than all the other commandments (Mark 12:31).

But with all that said, Christ is not simply the greatest Rabbi of His day providing the best teaching. He is not even the greatest teacher among all the other teachers or the apex of all the other religions. He is not even in that category. He transcends all categories.

Jesus Christ is Lord of Israel and Lord of all precisely because He not only gives us the law and the commandment to love God and love neighbor, but because He is the only one who truly lives it. Christ is the only one to live fully the love of God and love of neighbor, and in that is found the Secret of Life!

The Secret of Life is Jesus Christ, God made man, who comes down from heaven to dwell among us and teaches us how to live and how to love. Jesus Christ is the one who loves God to the fullest, giving His life to the father in the obedience of love, even to the point of death on the cross. Jesus Christ is the one who loves neighbor to the fullest possible extent by sacrificing Himself on the cross for the salvation of us all.

That is the secret of life: to give oneself away—to offer oneself as a gift—and in that to be fulfilled and complete.

Christ invites every one of us to participate in that secret of life by participating in His own life through baptism. By our baptism into Christ the Holy Spirit lives in us and helps us to live the commandments of love.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, talks about the great mystery and the secret of life, and he says it is:

. . . the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past. But now it has been manifested to his holy ones, to whom God chose to make known the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; it is Christ in you, the hope for glory.
—Colossians 1:26-27

Christ lives in us. The Holy Spirit lives in us. We now have the ability to live out the commandment of love—to love God and neighbor—like Christ Himself because He lives in us. As overwhelming and supernatural as that sounds, we do it in a very practical way: by the things we say and by what we do each and every day.

There was a story in The New York Post just a few weeks ago about a man who was caught trying to jump off the Empire State Building with a parachute. He was arrested and charged with reckless endangerment. Of course, he pleaded innocent. His lawyer went before the court and declared that his client was innocent because he was simply “expressing himself.”

The judge asked for an explanation, and the lawyer went on to say that, “some people express themselves with words. My client expresses himself with actions.” The article did not give the outcome of the case, but we can guess what it probably was!

But that is an example of what God asks of each one of us. Not that we jump off the Empire State Building with a parachute! But that we express ourselves, that we express our love for Him and our neighbor, with words and actions. Both are necessary. What are some of the ways God is challenging us to love him and other with our words and actions this week?

What are the words God is moving us to pray in conversation with Him? Have we asked God to become more a part of our lives, more a part of our families, our workplace? Have we asked Him to make us a better father or a better mother? A better son or daughter, husband or wife? Have we spent time with Him in prayer? That is how we love God with our words.

With our neighbor, we use words to encourage, to build up; perhaps we use words to challenge each other to live the Gospel more faithfully.

And finally, we accompany our words with the actions that speak that same message. In a very practical way, we respond to the needs around us. St. Augustine was once asked, “What does love look like? You always speak about love; you write about it. But what does love look like?” He responded:

It has feet to go to the poor and needy.
It has eyes to see misery and want.
It has ears to hear the sighs and the sorrows of others.

This week we ask God for the grace to love Him and our neighbor with our words and actions. And as we do that in the everyday practice of our faith, may we enter more deeply into the very secret of life, what St. Paul says is: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Feast of All Saints

(Feast of All Saints;This homily was given 1 November, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read Matthew 5:1-12)

One of my favorite places on earth is the Basilica of St. Peter in the City of Rome. Unlike the Gothic style cathedrals, like Notre Dame in Paris, which seek to draw our attention and our imagination toward the heavens by their tall steeples and stain glass windows high up near the vaulted ceiling, the Basilica of St. Peter’s is early Baroque.

The Baroque style seeks to do the opposite: to draw heaven right down here to earth. As if in imitation of the God who becomes man and walks among us, St. Peter’s gives us a glimpse of heavenly realities right here and now.

When you walk into St. Peter’s, immediately you will find holy water fonts being held up by life-sized angels; they are close enough for you to reach out and touch.

Walking further into the Basilica, exploring the many side altars and the nave of that church, you discover the statues, images and mosaics of the saints. They are almost at eye level, and some are close enough for you to grab hold of their feet.

But more than that, the lives of the saints are physically present. The Basilica is literally founded upon the very remains of St. Peter; the bones of the Fisherman are part of the very foundation. The tombs of John Paul the Great and Blessed John XXIII, as well as many other popes and saints from throughout the centuries, are also a permanent part of that great Basilica.

St. Peter’s reminds us of what we celebrate today as Catholics: the Feast of All Saints. It reminds us that God does not want us to wait until heaven before we experience the change and transformation of our lives and our world that the Scriptures speak of. God wants to bring the power and splendor of heaven right here to this earth. The saints are the ones who allowed Him to do that. Christ constantly challenges us to do the same.

The Gospel for today is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and the Beatitudes He delivers for all the people of God. Jesus does not say, “Blessed will be the poor in spirit, some day.” No, He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” right here, right now.

“Blessed are the merciful.” Even now—as they imitate God’s greatest attribute—they are blessed, and in the end they will receive great mercy.

“Blessed are the peace makers.” God is especially impatient to reward those who strive for peace among people and nations. He is determined to bless them now, and already the world recognizes them as “Children of God.”

“Blessed are clean of heart.” They are blessed right here and now, those who seek to be pure and chaste even in the midst of a world and culture that mocks that purity and laughs in the face of the chaste. Blessed indeed, Christ says, are those who seek that virtue. “They shall see the face of God.”

On this feast of All Saints, Christ challenges all of us to walk in the footsteps of the saints, and to live the Beatitudes, not the attitudes of the culture around us.

Do we have the courage to do that? Do we dare to follow the examples of the saints and to give God permission to bring the power and majesty of heaven right down here to this earth, in our families, our schools and workplaces?

If the answer is, “Yes, we do have the courage to seek this grace, this gift,” then perhaps one day there will be a statue, an image, or a mosaic in St. Peter’s Basilica with us on it.

But more importantly, there will be a place for us in heaven, with God and all the angels and saints, for all eternity.


[Your Place Here]