Sunday, September 30, 2007

Bridging the Gap

(26th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given 29 & 30 September, 2007, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; read Luke 16:19-31)

On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican is one of the most famous paintings in all of Christian art: Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam.” It has been reproduced thousands of times on posters, calendars, t-shirts and even coffee mugs!

The scene is that of Adam being brought into life. God is stretching down to him from heaven and Adam’s hand is reaching up; their fingers seem to meet as God infuses him with the gift of life. But if you look closely at that image you will notice that the two are really not touching at all. There remains a slight gap—just a few inches—between them.

And even though it is only a few inches, it might as well be an infinite distance, because there is nothing Adam can do to reach God. There is nothing any of us can do—of ourselves—to reach the heights of heaven. As St. Paul says so clearly in today’s second reading, God is He:

Who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, and whom no human being has seen or can see.
—1 Timothy 6:16

There is nothing we could ever do to take hold of heaven and bridge that gap between us and God; but there is something He can do—and has done—to reach us. In Jesus Christ, God has become man and has brought us all closer together, and together, closer to God. Every one of us shares an intimate bond with each other, because we have all been created by God, and an intimate bond with God himself, who sent Christ to redeem us.

In the parable Jesus relates to us in the gospel this weekend, both those bonds are broken.

The rich man, who lived comfortably and had everything he could ever want in life, now finds himself in a place of torment, separated from his fellow man and separated from God. He cries out to Abraham, hoping that maybe Lazarus can come and bring him relief. Sadly, Abraham replies that he cannot:

Between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.
—Luke 16:26

It’s a great chasm, an infinite distance, and there is nothing now that can close the gap. It’s too late. All his life the rich man could have reached out and touched Lazarus, he could have spoken to him and helped him. Instead he chose to ignore this poor man, lying at his door. He chose complacency over compassion, selfishness instead of selfless love for others, and refused to recognize the bond he shared with another human person.

This complacency is something that can affect all the areas of our lives: our relationships, our friendships, and even our faith life. We can become all too comfortable with ourselves and forget the needs of those around us.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that the rich man in the parable knew Lazarus! Remember, he calls out to Abraham and asks for Lazarus by name. He knew his name!

If we look close enough, each of us can find that there are people in our lives, people we know by name, that are needy in some way or another. It might be a physical need, or an emotional or spiritual one. There are so many needs in this world we live in. How is God calling us to respond to the ones that are right in front of us on a daily basis?

For four years I studied in the City of Rome as I was preparing for the priesthood. Each day, on the walk to school, I would encounter many homeless persons. Some of them were beautiful people, and very easy to connect with. Others were much more challenging and quite difficult, indeed, to love.

One of them used to sit on the pavement about 100 yards from the university, and he was completely unpredictable. Sometimes he would curse as we walked by, or even spit at us. Other times he was soft-spoken and asked us kindly for a helping hand. It was hard to know whether we should reach out and help, or walk quickly by and avoid him.

One day, as I was speaking with another seminarian in his dorm room, I noticed a small painting on his wall that looked familiar. I said, “That’s the university. In fact, I even recognize the angle that picture was painted from. That’s about the place where that homeless guy sits. You know, the mean one.”

The other seminarian said to me, “You mean Joseph?”

I was surprised. “How did you know his name?”

Then he said to me, “Joseph is the one who painted that picture.”

So many times I had walked by that man and seen only someone who was ugly. Yet there was great beauty there, deep within. So often we look at ourselves, or at others, and we see people who are ugly. God challenges us to look deeper, and to recognize the beauty that He put there. He challenges us to look for the image of God at the center of every human person, and to love that image. He calls us, in very concrete ways this week, to love those around us and to close the gap that so often exists between us.

St. Augustine, who wrote extensively about love and the Christian life, was once challenged: “But what does love look like?” It’s as if they were saying, “Enough philosophy and theology. Just tell us what this love should look like.” He answered directly:

Love 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 sorrows of others.

In a moment, God will reach down from heaven and touch us with the gift of the Eucharist. The same God who reached down and touched Adam, giving Him the gift of life, will reach down here and touch our hearts with His Body and His Blood.

May he also touch our feet, that they may go to the poor and needy, our eyes so we can see the suffering all around us, and our ears, that they may be opened to hear the sighs and sorrows of others.

And when the world we live in begins to search for the image of love, and wants to know what it looks like; when they look for that image of God and long for even a glimpse of it, may they find that image in each and every one of us.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Economy of Salvation

(25th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given 22 &23 September, 2007, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; read Luke 16:1-13 and CCC #258, 1066 & Glossary)

Some of the most powerful and beautiful teachings in the Scriptures are found in the New Testament, in the parables of Jesus Christ; He simply is the greatest Teacher of all time. One of the reasons for His effectiveness and ability to communicate His message so well—to the people of His own day, and to the people of ours—has to do with the examples and illustrations He often used from everyday life.

The parable we hear this weekend, the Parable of the Unjust Steward, is no exception. Christ talks to them about landowners, stewards, debtors and creditors; they were very well acquainted with that system.

We ourselves are also familiar—perhaps too familiar—with some of the very same things: debt, credit cards, bills and payments. All of these things, obviously, have to do with the economy. They make up the economic system. All civilizations and cultures have some kind of economy, however primitive it may be. In order for a society to function it must have some sort of an economy.

That word itself, Economy, is taken from the Greek word oikonomia, and it means literally the “management of a household.” It describes how someone conducts their affairs; how they manage their life.

The Fathers of the Church, however, tell us that there is an economy in God Himself! They call it the “economy of salvation.” It does not mean that God has a credit card, or that He is investing at the New York Stock Exchange. The “economy of God” or the “economy of salvation,” refers to the way God “manages” His household, the world.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way:

The economy of salvation…refers to God’s activity in creating and governing the world, particularly to his plan for the salvation of the world in the person of Jesus Christ, a plan which is being accomplished through His Body the Church, in its life and sacraments.

—Catechism of the Catholic Church,
Glossary, “Economy of Salvation”

The “economy of salvation,” then, is basically “what God is up to” on an everyday basis; how He is guiding the course of human history. If you want to know how God is managing Europe or the United States, how He is dealing with Cranston, Rhode Island, or your own household and your own life, then you need look no further than the person of Jesus Christ. That is what God is up to.

Christ is God who became man and walked right into our very lives; He entered into our economic system, into our homes and families. He reached out and touched those who were sick, and healed them. He gave sight to the blind and raised the dead. He suffered and died on the cross so that we could be forgiven for our sins and find new hope and new life in Him.

Jesus Christ rose again from the dead and invited us into His very life, a life that will never end. By our Baptism we can live in Him and through the gift of His Body and Blood to us in the Holy Eucharist, Christ lives in us. Through the Sacrament of Reconciliation we can be forgiven for all our sins and make a brand new start with God.

That is the “economy of Salvation” in all its splendor! That is how God is managing His household.

The challenge Christ issues to us this weekend is simple and clear: To be active in that economy! We are not called to sit back and wait for God to do something in our lives. We cannot be unresponsive to so great a gift! Jesus contrasts those who are inactive and unmotivated in their Christian life to the people of this world who are over-active in the economy and worldly affairs here on earth:

The children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.
—Luke 16:8

The illustration He uses is the Parable of the Dishonest Steward. Make no mistake about it: this man is a scoundrel! He is a thief. He’s embezzling money from his boss; taking what does not belong to him. And he’s been caught! He is about to get fired, and rightfully so.

Jesus in no way condones what that man has done. But what the parable draws our attention to is the reaction of that scoundrel as soon as he figures out that the game is up: he gets active. This man got busy! He used all his energy, his efforts, gifts and abilities, everything he had, to make sure that he would be well taken care of in this world. He made sure he was well covered when it came to worldly wealth.

Jesus is essentially saying: If only my people were that active in their pursuit of eternal wealth!

He is challenging us to use all our energies, our efforts, gifts, abilities and resources, to seek the Kingdom of God and to make sure we have a place in the eternal kingdom where He lives and reigns forever. Because, in the end, the “economy of Salvation” is not about money. It is not about possessions, or property of anything so mundane.

The “economy of salvation” is ultimately about heaven. It’s about eternal life. We can ask ourselves this weekend: How much are we investing in that economy? Certainly in our generosity with time, talent and treasure, but more than that; also in the way we live and the way we love? How well are we investing in that “economy” which will earn us dividends in an eternal life with God?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Captain Jack Sparrow's Compass

(24th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given 15 & 16 September, 2007, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; read Luke 15:1-32)

If you have seen the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean, then you know who Captain Jack Sparrow is. He is the central character, the main pirate, and he always knows exactly where to look for treasure. The reason he has such a good sense of the direction is because of the compass that he carries with him at all times.

It is certainly no ordinary compass. It does not point north, south, east and west; the compass of Captain Jack Sparrow points in only one direction: the direction of the thing he desires the most! When his heart is set on treasure, the compass automatically points in that direction.

But as the sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean begins, in the movie Dead Man’s Chest, we discover that Captain Jack Sparrow is in a crisis: he doesn’t know exactly what he wants. There is some interior confusion, and for that reason, his compass will not work the way it should. It is unable to bring him to the place he wants to go.

That is the picture we are given this weekend in the beautiful and familiar Parable of the Prodigal Son. The son doesn’t know what he wants; he thinks he does. He says to his father: “Give me the share of your estate that should come to me” (Luke 15:12). He then takes that share and goes off to “a distant country” where he squanders the entire inheritance “on a life of dissipation.”

The Fathers of the Church and early Christian writers have always understood that journey into “a distant country” as the alienation from God that comes from the life of sin. The more we become entangled in sin, the further we become entrenched in that “distant country,” and the more estranged we become from God.

The tragedy of the prodigal son lies not so much in the details of the sins he has committed, or even in the sad consequences of those sins which have made him a pig farmer in a foreign land (an unthinkable profession for the Jews). The most painful reality of all is that the son has let his moral compass take him in the opposite direction of where he most needs to be; he has become completely separated from the father.

We listen to that parable knowing all along that the father is such a father! He is so willing to give the son anything he asks for. Later we see how ready the father is to take the son back; how eager he is to reconcile that older brother; how filled with love and compassion! We ask ourselves: “Why would anyone ever leave a father like that?”

And that is the triumph of the Parable of the Prodigal Son: the son suddenly begins to ask himself that very question! There, alienated, broken and alone in “a distant country,” he remembers the kindness and benevolence of his own father; he longs for the home that he now understands he never should have left to begin with. His compass begins to work once again, and sets him back in the right direction, to the one thing he desires more than anything else in the world, the greatest treasure of all.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his new book Jesus of Nazareth, writes about this very conversion of the prodigal son. Our Holy Father (who has probably never seen the movie Pirates of the Caribbean, or probably never heard of Captain Jack Sparrow!) writes:

What [the prodigal son] finds in himself, though, is the compass pointing toward the father, toward the true freedom of a “son.”
—Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, pg. 205

He gets his bearings once again, and soon makes a decision: “I shall get up and go to my father” (Luke 15:18). He follows through on that decision, and is received back again with open arms.

It is a beautiful and heartwarming story; one that we are all familiar with. But the story prompts us to ask ourselves today: What about us? Where is our compass pointing? Is the compass pointing us in the right direction and bringing us ever closer to God? Or is our compass bringing us farther away, into that “distant country,” and away from the heart of the father?

I would suggest this weekend three aspects of the prodigal son that we should seek to imitate in our own lives.

Firstly, we should remember that this Father is such a father! God is so good, so merciful, so generous to us. He wants nothing but what is good for us, and to give us Himself and draw us to eternal life with Him. That should motivate everything we do, and guide us in the way we live. It should set our compass to the thing we should want more than anything else: God and His plan for our lives.

Secondly, like the prodigal son, we should be ready to make a decision. Whatever God is prompting us to do, we should be ready to answer His call. Has it been a while since we have come to Holy Mass? Are we able to make it some of the time, perhaps even most of the time, but not every weekend? God is asking us to make a decision to be with Him here every weekend.

Going out to dinner on Saturday night, or having a big family breakfast on Sunday morning is a great thing. To sit around the house and read the newspaper, or rest and watch TV is fine. But these things, of themselves, will not bring us to eternal life with God. They will not lead us to the heart of the Father. Mass will.

Mass is the place where Jesus Christ comes to us—Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity—where He comes into our lives and into our souls, and leads us ever closer to His Father. This is the place where we hear the Word of God proclaimed, and the Father says to us, over and over again, “Welcome home. Welcome back, come ever closer to the life I have called you to share.” Is God asking you to make that decision to attend Mass every week?

Or when is the last time you made a good sacramental confession? Is there anything in our lives that still needs to be forgiven by God? Our faith teaches us that when we have committed any serious or grave sins, ordinarily they can only be forgiven in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Might God be moving us to make that decision this week: to come to Him in that sacrament, and hear the words of absolution, to receive the embrace of our heavenly Father in that special place reserved for reconciliation and peace.

Or are there things in our lives that are keeping us from growing closer to God? Are there things we need to let go of, or say “No” to, or perhaps habits of prayer and fidelity that we need to follow through on in order to become, more and more, the sons and daughters God is calling us to be? Could that be the decision God is calling us to make?

Which brings us to the final aspect of the prodigal son that we should seek to imitate: like the prodigal son, we need to not only make a decision to return and draw closer to the Father. We need to actually do so, to follow through and make good on that decision.

We need to set our course, and, with the prodigal son “get up and go to [our] father.” In our lives this week, may we find our true compass once again, the compass that leads us to the one thing that we should desire above all other things: to seek the heart of the Father, and find in Him our greatest treasure, our deepest desire, and our one hope for eternal life.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Onesimus: Brother, Disciple...Bishop?

(23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given 8 & 9 September, 2007, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; read Philemon and Luke 14:25-33)

This homily touches on the abhorrent practice of human slavery, unfortunately an accepted reality at the time of the nascent Church. For a thorough treatment on the issue of slavery, and the Catholic Church’s position regarding it, please refer to Rev. Raymond Suriani and his homily this week. The link to his blog is on the right.

This morning Christ speaks to us about the cost of discipleship—what it takes to follow Him in this world—and what He asks of us is no less than everything. We must love Him more than our own possessions, more than our own families, more than we love our very lives. And we must be willing to follow Him even in the midst of our own suffering. He says:

Whoever does not carry his own cross
and come after me cannot be my disciple.
—Luke 14:27

But have you ever wondered if it would be easier to follow Christ if you had a different cross than the one you carry? Perhaps you’ve thought to yourself, “I would be a much better Christian if I didn’t have these particular struggles in my life.” Maybe you have even said to yourself, “If I could just start over again, someplace far away, everything would be different.”

I would like to tell you a story about a young man who tried to do exactly that; I’m going to save his name until the end, but I promise that you have heard of him before.

He was a servant in a very large household, and he was unhappy. One night he decided to leave everything behind, and he ran away to make a new life for himself. But the further he went, and the harder he tried, the worse things became. Before long he hit rock bottom and he eventually found himself in the local jail.

It was at that time, in that jail, that he met an old man who would change his life forever. The old man taught him to trust in God, and shared with him the truth about forgiveness in Christ, and God’s unconditional love. He taught him that his life had meaning and purpose, and then he encouraged the young man to go back to the household he had run away from.

“Go back?” the young man said to him. “I can’t do that!” He was a servant and the penalty for running away at that time was severe. But the old man told him not to worry, and he assured him that he actually knew the master of that house, and would personally write a letter guaranteeing his acceptance back. He assured the young man that, now that he had Christ in his life, everything had changed.

The name of that young man was Onesimus, and I said earlier that you had heard of him because he is the subject of this morning’s 2nd Reading. The old man was none other than the Apostle Paul himself, and the letter he promised to write—which is our 2nd Reading—has been read in the Church for nearly 2000 years. St. Paul had written to the master, Philemon, in the strongest language:

I, Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus, urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment…

Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother . . . Welcome him as you would welcome me.

—Philemon 9, 15-17

Onesimus had tried, on his own, to change his life, but he had failed. Yet in the midst of his own failure and the recognition of his own trials and difficulties, he discovered the freedom he was searching for all along. He found Jesus Christ, and became a brother to the Apostle Paul, and Philemon. He had entered into that new life and new beginning he was so ardently seeking, and today he teaches us the lesson that Christ offers in the gospel: that we cannot separate our crosses from the call to discipleship:

Whoever does not carry his own cross
and come after me cannot be my disciple.
—Luke 14:27

We cannot separate our daily struggles and the crosses we carry from the call to follow Christ. The two go together, and it is very often in the midst of our crosses that we find Christ and that He draws near to us and helps us shoulder that burden.

And it’s all right to ask God for another cross, or a lighter one. Christ Himself asked the Father three times that his cross might be lifted. What matters is that we are willing to follow Christ, even if the cross remains. We are willing to take up our cross and follow Him.

There is a very moving scene in the film, The Lord of the Rings, in which Frodo, who has been carrying the ring which causes him so much suffering, turns to the wise and prudent Gandalf and says, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” And Gandalf replies:

So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

Maybe we could follow Christ better if we had a different cross, or a different life. But this is the life that we have been given, and in this life, and in no other, God offers us hope. He offers us strength and the help we need to follow Him. And so we must decide what we will do with the time that is given to us, we must decide to take up our cross and follow Christ.

Which brings us back to our friend Onesimus. We never do find out in Paul’s letter what happened to him. But we do know that a man named Onesimus, around this time, became the Bishop of the Church at Ephesus, one of the most important cities in the early Church. Many scholars believe that this is the same Onesimus who met St. Paul in that jail only years before.

We don’t know for sure, but what we do know is that this young man—in the end—was “no longer a slave but a brother,” and above all, a disciple of Jesus Christ. May we, too, become faithful disciples of Christ and follow Him in our daily lives.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Award-Winning Humility

(22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given 1 & 2 September, 2007, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; read Sirach 3: 17-20 and Luke 14:7-14)

You may have heard the story of the parish priest who was so humble that his parishioners decided something had to be done to recognize him. They had a medal cast with his name on the front, and on the back was inscribed: “The Most Humble Priest Ever.” They gave it to him at a special ceremony after Mass one Sunday. But just one week later, they decided to take that medal away from him…because he had the audacity to wear it!

Humility, a theme we find in our readings this weekend, can be an elusive virtue. As soon as we think we have it, we’ve lost it! But if there ever was such a thing as an award for humility, it could certainly be given to the author of our first reading, the author of the Book of Sirach. His full name, as we are told in the introduction to that book, is Yeshua Ben Sira (Sirach in Greek) and he is one of the great sages of the Old Testament. He is also considered one of the most modest and humble.

Sirach lived and taught about 200 years before Christ and his book is literally full of counsel and advice about how to love and serve God, how to follow the commandments and live at peace with those around us. In our first reading, Sirach offers us his teaching on humility (Sirach 3:17-20):

"My child," he says, "conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts."

Do you want people, to love you? If so, Sirach is saying, then be humble. If you want people to like you, then live in humility. He continues:

"Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God."

Not only are the humble attractive to those around them; humility attracts God Himself! God favors those who live in humility. Finally, Sirach offers the key to achieving this humility:

"What is too sublime for you, seek not, into things beyond your strength search not."

Knowing who we truly are, according to Sirach, is the key to humility: to not go beyond our limits; to know where God has placed us and to be content there. That is the path we are called to walk.

There is a great book, written by Ursula Le Guin, called, The Farthest Shore. It is very much like C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia or J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings; the fantasy-fiction genre. The book begins by describing the land of Earthsea, a world overtaken by a dark force which has drained the land and its people of their power. The wizards and all the inhabitants of Earthsea have been drawn into this darkness and are helpless to overcome it.

The main character and hero, a wizard named Ged, sets off with his young apprentice, Arren, to confront this dark force. Before long, Arren notices that Ged—unlike all the other wizards—has somehow retained all of his powers. Intrigued, Arren questions this strange phenomenon:

“How is it that all the wizards…have lost their art, but you keep yours?”

Ged answers without hesitation:

“Because I desire nothing beyond my art.”

He alone had lived his life according to the wisdom of Sirach:

What is too sublime for you, seek not,
into things beyond your strength search not.
—Sirach 3:17-18, 20

That was they key to his strength, and to his ability to practice well the art which all the others had lost. “I desire nothing beyond my art.” That is true humility: being content to be the person God created us to be, and not striving to go one bit beyond it.

What would the world look like if everyone followed that advice?

What would “Corporate America” look like if men and women in the business world followed the counsel of Sirach?

Or closer to home, what would our families, marriages, vocations and personal lives look like if we followed that advice?

What is too sublime for you, seek not,
into things beyond your strength search not.
—Sirach 3:17-18, 20

Jesus Christ, in the Gospel this weekend, gives us a picture of exactly what that would look like. He reveals to us what happens when we do not seek to go beyond our own limits. When we do not spend all of our efforts looking after “Number One,” then God begins to look after us Himself. When we seek merely to take the lowest place, God Himself moves us up higher to where we never dreamed of going. Jesus says:

When you are invited [to a banquet], go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, “My friend, move up to a higher position.”
—Luke 14:10

Back in the summer of 2001, when I was about to begin my second year of Major Seminary in Rome, I was part of what was called the Orientation Committee. Each summer, the Second Year seminarians work together as part of that committee to welcome the new students to Rome for the first time. One of the most moving events of that orientation is the trip to the Pope’s summer residence in Castelgondolfo, joining about 1,000 other pilgrims for the general audience there.

Since we had been to Castelgondolfo already, just one year before, many of the members of the Orientation Committee began to move the new students closer to the window where the Holy Father was about to appear. As we moved them forward, we ourselves took up the places towards the back of the group.

While we were in the very process of doing that, the archbishop in charge of the Papal Household came out and addressed our rector, who had just begun his position as the leader of our seminary. The archbishop said to him, “Are you the new Rector of the North American College? Take two people from your group, and follow me.”

The rector pointed to me and one of my classmates, and suddenly the three of us were led through a door and up a flight of stairs, and eventually into a small room where Pope John Paul II greeted us, and spoke to us for a few minutes, before finally giving us his blessing. It was one of the most memorable moments of my seminary formation.

The first thing that came to my mind that day was the gospel passage for this weekend, and the call for those who take the lowest place to “move up to a higher position.”

This morning we gather here at God’s great banquet, the Banquet of the Eucharist, to meet not the Pope but Jesus Christ Himself. God calls us to take the lowest place, to approach this great mystery of the Eucharist with the same faith and humility that we express at every Mass, praying in the words of the humble centurion in the gospel:

Lord, I am not worthy to receive You,
but only say the word and I shall be healed.

May we truly come to recognize, here before Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, who we truly are in the sight of God; may our joy, our contentment find its foundation in that knowledge. And may we hear the voice of Christ Himself inviting us “to move up to a higher position,” more and more intimately into a life of union with Him.