Sunday, November 25, 2007

Two Tickets to Paradise

(Solemnity of Christ the King-Year C; This homily was given 24 & 25 November, 2007, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; Read 2 Samuel 5:1-3, Luke 23:35-43, and St. Teresa of Avila's Book of Her Life)

It was back in the late 70s and early 80s (I was in grammar school, not to give too much away here!), and one of the most popular songs on the radio was a tune by a man named Eddie Money called “Two Tickets to Paradise.” Now if you have never heard that song before, or if you’ve forgotten it, allow me to refresh your memory. It begins:

Got a surprise especially for you,
Something that both of us have always wanted to do.
We’ve waited so long…

I’ve got two tickets to paradise
Won’t you pack your bags, we’ll leave tonight
I’ve got two tickets to paradise.

If you are familiar with that song then you know that Eddie Money never tells us what paradise is; he never gives us his version. Of course, we can guess what a rock star from the 70s and 80s meant by paradise, but this weekend we can also ask ourselves: How do we define paradise?

I would be willing to bet if you asked five different people that question, you would probably get five different answers. The original meaning of the word paradise, however, goes way back before Eddie Money, and well before Christ Himself. It comes from the ancient Persian culture (modern day Iran) and means, literally, a walled-in garden or enclosed park.

It was customary for the Persian King to allow only a select few subjects of the kingdom to walk with him in that enclosed garden; such intimacy was reserved for only those closest to him. It was a great honor to walk with the king in paradise.

In our gospel this weekend Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, invites the Good Thief to do exactly that. Christ is suffering on the cross in great agony, looking like anything but a king. Nonetheless, the Good Thief next to him recognizes royalty when he sees it. Turning to Christ in the midst of his own suffering, he makes that now famous request:

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.
—Luke 23:42

Suddenly, with great love and in the midst of His own pain, Christ turns to the Good Thief and replies:

Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.
—Luke 23:43

Today you will walk with me in my garden.

Today you will be my intimate friend and close companion.

Today you will walk with me in eternal life.

It is a powerful reflection for us this weekend on the Feast of Christ the King. Yet our feast also reminds us that we are all called to share in the intimacy and personal relationship with Christ which the Good Thief enjoys. By virtue of our baptism, we are all intimately connected to Jesus Christ the King.

Part of the Rite of Baptism that occurs immediately after a child is cleansed of Original Sin is the anointing with holy chrism. The priest or deacon uses chrism to make the sign of the cross on the crown—that word is used intentionally in the rubrics for the Rite of Baptism—on the crown of the head. All the baptized share, in a particular way, in the person of Christ and in the kingship of Christ.

In the Old Testament, when kings were taken from among the people they were anointed with oil to signify that they were being chosen for a special task and a particular mission in this world. We saw that this morning in our first reading from the Second Book of Samuel. King David was anointed in Hebron as King of Israel (2 Samuel 5:3).

In the same way all the baptized are anointed as emissaries for Christ; we share His mission in this world and are called also to share in that close, personal relationship with the King of Glory. We do not wait until heaven to participate in that relationship. Christ the King intends for that relationship to take place right here, right now. I would suggest this weekend three way in which that happens; three ways in which we walk with Christ in paradise right here on earth.

The first and irreplaceable way is the way of prayer. St. Teresa of Avila, the 16th century Spanish mystic and Doctor of the Church (and also my Favorite. Saint. Ever.) constantly in her writings refers to Jesus Christ as “His Majesty.” As far as St. Teresa is concerned, He is always Christ the King! Yet in addition to being the King of Kings and Lord of all, St. Theresa also recognizes Him as her intimate and personal friend. In one of the most beautiful definitions on prayer ever given, she describes this friendship in her autobiography:

For mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.
—The Book of Her Life, Chapter 8, #5

We walk with the King in paradise whenever we spend time with Him in prayer.

The second way that we experience paradise right here on earth is through the sacramental life of the Church. Especially when we receive Christ in the Eucharist, we are drawn into that intimate relationship with Him that exceeds all earthly limits. The bread and wine on the altar become the Body and Blood of Christ and we are brought together in Christ to share the Bread of Angels and a foretaste of eternal life.

Similarly, when we receive the grace of God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and hear the words of Christ Himself through the voice of the priest—I absolve you of your sins—the very mercy of God and the power of heaven is poured out for us on earth.

The sacraments draw us into the garden of paradise and allow us to walk closely with Christ the King.

Finally, we walk closely with Christ in paradise whenever we walk closely with Him in our daily lives. It is whenever we invite Him into our hearts, into our homes, into our families and workplaces, whenever we invite Christ into our own “space” that He shows up and brings paradise right along with Him!

This is perhaps never more true than when we invite Him into our suffering. Remember that is that place that the Good Thief discovers Christ in our gospel this weekend. He is suffering beside our Lord and suddenly acknowledges Christ the King, not in bitterness or in hopelessness, but in faith. The result is that great promise of an intimate and eternal relationship with the King:

Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.
—Luke 23:43

And so, prayer, the sacraments and inviting Christ into our daily lives and daily sufferings; these are the ways that Christ calls us to experience a foretaste of heaven and paradise right here on earth.

This weekend, on the Feast of Christ the King, Jesus says to each one of us:

“I’ve got two tickets to paradise, and one of them has your name on it!”

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving and the Antidote to Hostility

(This homily was given Thanksgiving Day, 22 November, 2007, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.)

Just a few days ago the pastor and I were invited to attend a prayer service at the school being conducted by our First Graders. Half of them were dressed as pilgrims and the other half wore costumes depicting Native Americans; the service included a beautiful mixture of prayer and songs.

The whole scene, of course, was reminiscent of the historical event of the First Thanksgiving. In the year 1621 the pilgrims that had come over on the Mayflower just one year before gathered together with the Wampanoag people to celebrate and thank God for a bountiful harvest and for a brand new beginning in the New World.

We can sometimes have a nostalgic or romantic sense of that new beginning, but the reality of those first years for the pilgrims was not all about peace and tranquility. In many ways what the pilgrims encountered when they came to the New World was not so much tranquility as hostility.

The land was hostile to them; they had to learn new methods of farming and new ways of surviving in a foreign place. More to the point, not all the Native Americans were as welcoming and helpful as the Wampanoag peoples. As “politically incorrect” as it may sound, hostility and even violence were not uncommon.

But the pilgrims at Plymouth Colony and the other colonies made it through. They remained steadfast in their pursuit for a new way of life here in America, because they realized that nothing of value is gained without difficulty; nothing worthwhile in this life comes without sacrifice.

Isn’t that the same thing our own relatives experienced in the 19th and 20th century? Millions of pilgrims came here from Italy (especially those from the small Italian village of Itri, settling right here in Knightsville); they came from Ireland, and from all over Europe to start a whole new life in America.

They came seeking opportunities and a new way of life, but more often than not what they encountered was hostility. Italian immigrants were far from welcomed in this new land; neither was it uncommon to find signs in shop windows that read: Irish Need Not Apply. Pilgrims coming to America have always encountered challenges.

But what is the one thing that has remained constant through all those periods of hostility? What is the one thing in this country that made us different—from the beginning—and given us hope for a future beyond hostility?

The Christian faith.

On this Thanksgiving Day we thank God for our Christian faith and the way that it has molded our lives, perhaps in ways that we do not even fully appreciate. Today we thank God for that faith, and for the people who have gone before us and modeled it so well by their words and actions.

Just this past week I was on vacation and had the chance to visit the Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, New York. It is a place that commemorates the faithfulness and the sacrifice offered by St. Isaac Jogues and several other Catholic saints who courageously proclaimed the Gospel to the Native Americans there. They eventually gave their lives in witness to Christ. In the face of hostility they responded with a sincere gift of themselves, even to the point of death.

Two hundred years later, when millions of people from Europe began to migrate here, an Italian nun named Mother Cabrini came over with them and established schools and hospitals for those who were not welcomed anywhere else. She became a citizen of this country, and eventually St. Francis Xavier Cabrini became the first American citizen to be canonized.

This is our heritage; this is what we give thanks to God for today. We are grateful to God for all that He has given us, but we are also mindful of the people who have gone before us and given us such a witness of faith by the way they lived the Gospel.

But we can ask ourselves this morning, in light of the heritage that we have been given and mindful of the many blessings we share: what is our response to the challenges and the difficulties that we find in our country today? How are we responding to the pilgrims of 2007, to the immigrants who have come here in our own time to find a new way of life and another chance in this land of opportunity? Are we able to look at them—even those that are here illegally—with the dignity and respect that is so central to our life and faith as Catholics?

This is a challenging issue for our time. There are many varying opinions about what to do with our borders; how to strengthen or change the immigration laws; what to do with those who are here illegally. But there is one opinion and one response not open to us as Christians: hostility.

In fact, the Church needs to be the place of sanctuary and welcome par excellence, because we are called to be the sign of welcome, hospitality and solidarity among all peoples. That is our heritage and our calling in Christ.

Our late Holy Father, Pope John Paul the Great, in his message on World Migration Day in 1995, said:

In the Church no one is a stranger, and the Church is not foreign to anyone, anywhere. As a sacrament of unity and thus a sign and a binding force for the whole human race, the Church is the place where illegal immigrants are also recognized and accepted as brothers and sisters.

Do we believe that? Does that challenge us to see things differently in the culture we live in?

Today we thank God for all that we have been given, and for the men and women of faith who have sacrificed so much and paved the way before us. May we also follow in their footsteps. May we see the world we live in, and especially the people around us, with the same vision of St. Isaac Jogues, St. Francis Xavier Cabrini, and countless others who gave all in gratitude to God so that others might live in the peace of Christ.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Marriage and the Dialogue of Love

(32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given 10 & 11 November, 2007, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; Read Luke 20:27-38)

This weekend we listen in on what has to be one of the most exasperating conversations in the New Testament: the conversation between the Sadducees and Jesus Christ. It is exasperating because they are taking something that is holy and sacred—the covenant of love between a man and a woman as instituted by God, marriage—and manipulating that sacred institution in order to advance their own agenda. They are using marriage as a means in order to mock Christ and deny the resurrection. That’s exasperating!

But you will notice that Christ does not enter the conversation on their level; He does not become a part of that dialogue. Instead He takes the conversation to an entirely new level; He raises it. Jesus Christ begins a new dialogue on marriage that begins with heaven and eternal life. He reveals how marriage—as we know it—will not continue in heaven in the same way. A married couple work together as partners to help each other get to heaven. By all means they will be closer in heaven than they ever were on earth, but differently.

With all of that said, you have probably heard the expression before: “The more things change the more they stay the same.” Here we are, some 2,000 years later in our own State of Rhode Island and we are still listening to that same exasperating conversation on marriage.

Just like the Sadducees, who are manipulating the institution of marriage for their agenda, many groups today are doing the same to advance their own political, social and moral agendas. I am talking, in particular, about the steady stream of articles and columns written in the Providence Journal by persons like Bob Kerr and M. Charles Bakst. They, and many groups and individuals along with them, are strongly advocating for same sex marriage in the State of Rhode Island.

Just this past week, Mr. Bakst’s political column criticized Bishop Tobin for his stance against same sex marriage. Bakst called for, instead, more dialogue. He wants more conversation about how we look at and define marriage in our state.

But the Catholic Church is not interested in that dialogue! The Church is not interested in a conversation which seeks a new definition for married life, and the reason is that we already have one. There is already a vision and definition of marriage given to us by God. That vision is powerful and beautiful, and ironically, it involves the very thing that M. Charles Bakst is asking for: dialogue.

Marriage, defined by God “from the beginning” (Matthew 19:8, Genesis 2:24) is a dialogue or a conversation between a man and a woman. It is a dialogue of love that involves three things.

First and foremost, that conversation of love between a husband and wife is one that is exclusive. It is an intimate conversation into which no one else is invited. They speak that special language of love between the two of them only.

Secondly, that dialogue of love between the spouses is one that is lifelong. They agree to carry on that conversation “until death do us part.”

Finally, the dialogue or conversation of love in married life is one that is open to the gift of life; they are open to children, if God should grant that remarkable and magnificent gift.

Does that sound familiar? It should, because it is a conversation we hear at every wedding. In nuptial language we call that conversation vows. When a couple stands before the altar of God they exchange vows—a dialogue of love—in which they promise to be exclusive and totally faithful in a lifelong commitment of love that is open to new life.

But that conversation is not spoken only on that day of their wedding. A couple continues that conversation and renews their vows in a thousand different ways all throughout their married life…but never more so than when they enter the dialogue of love with their bodies in the marital embrace. Never more so than when, in the language of the Scriptures, “the two become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

Whenever I prepare couples for marriage I tell them how this conversation of love and dialogue of marriage spoken with their bodies is so powerfully beautiful that in nine months they could be holding it in their arms! The love between them is so powerful that in nine months they could be giving him or her a name.

That can never happen with a same-sex couple; it is biologically impossible for two men or two women to bear fruit in a new child as the fruit of their mutual love. More than that, it is inherently clear in the Scriptures and in the teachings of our faith that for a same sex couple to speak that language anyway, to become involved physically and bodily in acts which can never bring new life, is a grave sin.

To be clear, I am not talking about same sex attraction. That is different. We do not neccesarily choose who we are attracted to. We cannot be judged for falling in love with another person, regardless if that person is of the same or opposite sex as us. The Church does not teach that same sex attraction is a sin.

But to act on that attraction, physically, in a sexual relationship, is a grave sin. Saint Paul says, with great love but with tremendous sorrow, that those who do so anyway “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:10). It is that serious. So far from being a political issue, this issue of same sex marriage could be the very hinge upon which one’s eternal salvation rests.

And nothing is more important than the kingdom of God. Nothing is more important than heaven and eternal life. That should be on everyone’s agenda. And it is primarily in that light that the Church looks at every person, regardless of their sexual orientation.

The Church looks at every person as a child of God and a magnificent creature called to eternal life with God. Back in 1986 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a Letter to All Bishops of the Catholic Church on the pastoral care of those who are attracted to persons of the same sex. The man responsible for that document is Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who we know today as Pope Benedict XVI, and the document states clearly that:

“The Church…refuses to consider the person as a ‘heterosexual’ or a ‘homosexual’, and insists that every person has a fundamental identity: the creature of God, and by grace, His child and heir to eternal life.”

If we truly want to know how the Church feels about all people, regardless of sexual orientation or attraction, then that is where we must begin; it is the very place where all dialogue must start.

It is also the reason why the Church—from Pope Benedict XVI, to Bishop Tobin, right on down to you and I—the Church has a grave responsibility to say and do whatever we can to make sure every person gets there, to heaven and to eternal life with God. That is the reason why every member of the Church has a grave responsibility to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Now that is a dialogue which every single one of us should be involved in.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Risky Business of the Seeker

(31st Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given 3 & 4 November, 2007, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; Read Luke 19:1-10)

This weekend we are introduced to one of the more intriguing characters of St. Luke’s Gospel: Zacchaeus. He is intriguing because there are only a few things that we know about him, and they all seem to be in conflict with each other.

St. Luke tells us he was “a wealthy man” (Luke 19:2). Certainly there is nothing wrong with that. Many times in the Old Testament and New Testament alike, wealth, property, possessions are understood as a blessing from God.

But St. Luke also tells us that Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector of that region; that was how he made a living, how he became so wealthy. That is where the conflict comes in!

Tax collectors were Jews who worked along with—and in a certain sense, for—the Roman Empire. They collected taxes from their own people and sent most of the money to the Romans, often keeping a sizable portion for themselves! It was a lucrative business. But it was also very risky business, because the people of Israel despised them. They would have hated Zacchaeus for the way he made his living, literally, off his own people.

Which brings us to the last thing we know about Zacchaeus: He was “Seeking to see who Jesus was” (Luke 19:3). That was the desire of his heart. Now that would have been risky business! Remember, everyone in town would have wanted a piece of him. He was quite unpopular. To even venture out in public could be dangerous; but to see Jesus he would have to do exactly that.

To make matters worse, he was short so he had to climb up a tree in order to see Christ. There he was, totally exposed, out in the open, literally out on a limb…but it was a risk that paid off. Suddenly Christ spotted him. Zacchaeus, who was seeking Jesus, found Him and his life was changed forever. He invited Christ into his home, and then into his heart, and nothing was ever the same again.

It is a beautiful and powerful story about conversion and renewal. Yet like so many stories in the Scriptures, there is so much more below that surface level. If we go a little deeper, and listen the final words of Christ in that gospel passage, we discover that it is really not a story about Zacchaeus seeking Jesus at all. In fact, it is really a story about Jesus who was seeking Zacchaeus!

At the end of our gospel this week, Jesus declares that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house, “for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). That is not just Zacchaeus’ story. It is our story. It is the story of the God who became man so that we could enter into eternal life with Him. God was willing to come here among us, and to run the risk of being rejected, mistreated, and even crucified, out of love for us and to give us the offer of a life forever with Him.

It is the greatest risk of all, because we have the ability to—on account of the freedom that He gave us—reject that offer of salvation and keep God at a distance. We can choose to remain exactly who we want to be, without ever letting God change and transform us, like He did to Zacchaeus.

There is a beautiful poem by the Spanish mystic and Doctor of the Church, St. John of the Cross, which describes this very risk of God and His passion to break through our complacency. It is a poem about a young shepherd who is absolutely in love with a young shepherd girl. He cannot keep his mind off her. But as the poem begins his heart is broken and he is weeping because she has forgotten him. St. John of the Cross continues:

That one thought:
his shining one
has forgotten him,
is such great pain
that he bows to brutal handling
in a foreign land,
his heart an open wound with love.

And yet even after running the tremendous risk of being beaten and mishandled in a strange place, still she has not returned. Finally, in desperation, and as a last resort, he climbs a tree (like Zacchaeus in this weekend’s gospel):

After a long time
he climbed a tree,
and spread his shining arms,
and hung by them, and died,
his heart an open wound with love.

That is the risk of God. Christ climbs up the tree of the cross and reveals the great love of God in all its glory. It is the distance He was willing to go “to seek and to save what was lost.”

This weekend we must ask ourselves the question:

What is our response to this remarkable risk of God? How is God challenging us to respond to this offer of love? Like Zacchaeus, how are we called to come out of ourselves and into uncharted territory in response to the love of God?

How is God challenging us to take chances and risk our love this week? Perhaps to write that letter; to make that phone call; to forgive someone who has hurt us; to ask forgiveness from others; from God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation?

It might be the risk of intimacy with God. God is constantly seeking to draw closer to us in an intimate relationship of prayer and faith. Like Zacchaeus, He is seeking to enter our homes, our families, our workplaces, and into every single aspect of our lives. Are we letting Him do that? How are we responding to the Son of Man who risked everything “to seek and to save what was lost”?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Feast of All Saints: Embodiment of Beatitude

(Solemnity of All Saints-Year C; This homily was given 1 November, 2007, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; Read Matthew 5:1-12)

Our gospel for this Solemn Feast of All Saints is taken from St. Matthew’s Gospel, and focuses on perhaps the best known and most often quoted teachings of Christ: The Beatitudes. That word—Beatitude—is Latin for “blessing,” a word which Christ repeats nine times in almost as many verses.

The Beatitudes are situated at the very beginning of Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount.” As St. Matthew relates at the beginning of that passage:

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him. He began to teach them.
—Matthew 5:1-2

What did He teach them? In the Sermon on the Mount, and especially in the Beatitudes, Jesus teaches us about heaven and earth. He does not instruct us only about heaven; the Beatitudes do not draw our attention only to the things of earth. They teach us both.

Jesus Christ as Teacher is the perfect embodiment of His own teaching, since He is in Himself the culmination of both heaven and earth. In His very person He brings those two realities together. He is the eternal Son of God, dwelling from all eternity in heaven. Yet He comes to be born in space and time, taking on our human nature and a body of flesh and blood like us. He takes on our earthly existence.

And no one ever lived out the Beatitudes as fully as Jesus Christ. No one was ever poorer in spirit than Him; no one ever mourned or felt more sorrow than Christ as a result of the tragedy of sin and suffering that has cast its shadow upon this earth; no one was ever more clean of heart; no one was ever more persecuted for the sake of righteousness.

Neither was there ever a man who was more blessed than He! Christ is the One who is forever blessed here on this earth, and forever in heaven.

Our feast day today reminds us that we too are called to share in that same blessedness. We, too, baptized into Christ and committed to Him by a life of faith, are called to embody the Beatitudes in our daily lives with our hearts set on the life of the world to come.

My favorite quote from the great Christian writer, C.S. Lewis, makes this very assertion. He says:

The men and women who did the most for this world were the men and women who thought mostly of the world to come.

Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in.’

Aim at earth and you will get neither.

Is that not the moral, social and political failure of our time? Men and women who have the best of intentions, dead set on making this world a better place, yet focusing all of their work and will and hopes right here in this life only? When we leave God out of the equation, and do not set our sights on heaven and the Kingdom of God, we lose both heaven and earth together.

How radically different are the lives of the saints! These are the men and women who changed and transformed the world around them. They were fearless, passionate, and effective in renewing the face of the earth. They challenged kings, guided nations, founded hospitals and health care centers, reformed society and set the world on fire.

They did these things not because they were experts in public policy or skilled in political science. They accomplished great things for this world because they had their hearts, minds, and wills completely set on the world that is to come.

Today we are reminded that we are called to do the same. How is Christ challenging us to embody the Beatitudes and reveal the lives of the saints in our own world right now?