Sunday, February 24, 2008

Samaria, A Different Kind of Love Story

(3rd Sunday of Lent-Year A; This homily was given on 23 & 24 February, 2008 at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See John 4:5-42)

The Bible is a book literally filled with stories: stories of tragedy, stories of triumph; sad stories, and stories that are often filled with hope. This weekend’s Gospel, however, contains a love story…but it is a different kind of love story.

Our story begins with the person of Jesus Christ (always a good place to begin a story) who comes to a well in the land of Samaria. St. John goes on to tell us that a Samaritan woman came to that same well to draw water, and that it was about noon. Noon. The middle of the day. In Samaria, at noontime, it was extremely hot. Why would someone come at noon to draw water?

Scholars tell us that women of this region would come in the morning to draw water. It was cooler, and they would gather there and converse about social and political life. It was a place of community; but the Samaritan woman is someone who would not have been welcomed in that community.

As Jesus pointed out, she had had five husbands, and the man she was now living with was not her husband. She would not have been very welcomed anywhere. For all of the relationships she has been a part of, she is a woman who is very much alone.

And so she comes to the well at noontime—alone—because she has much to hide, and many things she wishes to keep to herself. Noontime, for her, is a safe time. But noontime, when the sun is directly overhead, is also the only time of day when there are no shadows! Everything is laid bare before the sun (Son). There is no place to hide. And it is there, in that place and at that time, that she meets a man who will change her life forever. Again, it’s a love story, but a different kind of love story.

Right there by that well Christ begins a dialogue and a conversation of love with that Samaritan woman. We know that he spoke to her with love because in the course of that conversation he lays bare her deepest secret, the one thing that she would want to hide, especially from this Stranger…and even after that, she stayed!

What kind of acceptance must she have felt in the presence of this Divine Stranger? What compassion she must she have heard in His voice, to not leave immediately when He told her everything that she had done in her life. Never had she been accepted like that. Never had she been treated with such compassion and kindness. And before long, Christ begins to draw her even more deeply into that conversation. He offers her living water and a whole new experience of life.

“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,” Jesus tells her. “But whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

By the time their conversation is over her entire perspective has been changed; she has been renewed there, by the side of the well, and cannot wait to go back to the town where she lives—accepted or not—to announce with overwhelming joy: “Come, see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Christ?”

It is a powerful and beautiful story. Again, a different kind of love story…but it is also our story! St. Augustine says that the woman of Samaria represents all of us. She is a type or image of the Church. Christ is the one engaging us in dialogue and seeking to draw us into that conversation of love.

In the Christian tradition we have a specific name for that conversation between us and God; we have a special designation for that dialogue of love: Prayer. Christ thirsts for that conversation with each one of us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, talking about this very gospel passage, says:

The wonder of prayer is revealed beside the well where we come seeking water: there, Christ comes to meet every human being. Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God's thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him.
—CCC, #2560

Are we giving God that time that He wants from us, time to be alone and quiet before Him? We began our Lenten journey just three short weeks ago, on Ash Wednesday, and in the gospel on that day Christ talked about three things: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. On this, the third Sunday of Lent, we need to take a closer look at that first one.

Are we placing ourselves before Christ in that conversation of love where He can renew and revive our spiritual lives? Are we surrendering ourselves each day to Him in that place where He can expose and lay bare those things in our lives that we need to change?

Christ does not want to shame us, or reject us when those things are revealed more clearly before Him. Quite the contrary, He wants to receive us, forgive us and draw us ever more deeply into that conversation of love with Himself. He wants to give us living water welling up for eternal life!

This weekend we come to discover, more and more completely, that Jesus Christ is thirsty! With that said, there is only one question that each of us needs to answer here in the middle of our Lenten journey: If God is that thirsty, are we?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Spiritual Legacy of Pope John Paul II

(1st Sunday of Lent-Year A; This homily was given on 9 & 10 February, 2008 at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See Genesis 2:7-3:7)

St. Mary's Parish Mission:

Monday through Wednesday, February 11-13

Mass begins at 7:00pm each evening

If you had to pick one person in your life that has had the greatest influence on you, who would it be? Is there someone you emulate, whose example you try to follow in your own life? Maybe a teacher, a parent, or some famous person you admire and respect?

For me that question is an easy one: Our late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. I have said many times that one of the greatest opportunities of my life was being able to study for the priesthood in the City of Rome. In that time I was able to meet Pope John Paul II twice, to attend some two dozen Masses that he celebrated, sometimes even serving as one of his deacons.

I began reading his works well before I ever entered the seminary, and he has truly had a profound impact and influence on me personally, and on my priesthood. And so, when the pastor asked me about a month ago to give our parish mission this year, the theme that naturally came to mind was: The Spiritual Legacy of Pope John Paul II. This coming Monday through Wednesday we will gather here at St. Mary’s to look more closely at this great legacy of truth and beauty that our late Holy Father has given us.

One of the major themes of the life and writings of Pope John Paul II is something that has come to be called the Law of the Gift. Evident in the core gospel message and taken directly from the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, John Paul II quotes it often as follows: Man only truly discovers himself through a sincere gift of himself.

In other words, I only truly know who I am, and why God created me, when I am able to give myself, in love, to God and those around me. Do you want to know why God made you? Why He put you here? Do you want to know how to be happy and joyful in this world? Those questions can only be answered fully, John Paul II would say, through a life lived "outside" of oneself. Man only truly discovers himself through a sincere gift of himself.

If we look closely on our first reading this weekend, from the Book of Genesis, we find the exact opposite in the Original Sin of Adam and Eve. They are not giving anything, to anyone. In fact, what they are doing is taking, in complete disobedience to the commandment of God. God had told them they could eat from any of the trees they wanted…except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yet that is exactly what they do anyway.

In that Original Sin, we find a pattern for every sin, a picture of our own sins against God and those around us. It consists, ultimately, in taking, selfishly doing what we want and not what God wants for us. St. Augustine says that when we sin we are living curvatus in se, curved in on ourselves. When that happens we are often the ones that suffer the most. Sin makes us miserable; when we act selfishly and fail to love God and those around us, we are the ones that become diminished, less and less the men and women we were always created to be.

In St. Paul’s New Testament Letter to the Romans, the Apostle shares his own inner struggle with sin (see Romans 7:15-25). He describes how he recognizes a law at work within himself: The very thing he would want to do, he says, he does not do. But then he recognizes that there are things he should avoid and not do…but he goes right ahead and does them anyway! With great exasperation, he cries out in that letter:

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
—Romans 7:24

Who will save him from this awful struggle? And then he triumphantly answers his own question:

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
—Romans 7:25

The solution to the problem of Original Sin is not found in me, or you, or St. Paul. The cure for selfishness and a life lived curvatus in se is not found in that latest self-help book or on the Oprah Winfrey Show! The solution to the great struggle with sin and our incapacity to give ourselves truly to God and those around us is found in the person of Jesus Christ! I would recommend that He does that in three ways.

Firstly, God takes on a body. God becomes man and takes on our human nature. He weds His own divine life to our humanity, forming an unbreakable bond with the human race. It is in that body, then, that He teaches us how to love, how to live, and how to give. Jesus Christ loves and forgives even His enemies, and shows us what it means to give ourselves to God and neighbor. He gives His body over to be crucified in total obedience and love to His Father’s will, and for the forgiveness of our sins.

Secondly, just so that we would not miss or forget that great self-offering—as if we could ever forget something like that—He makes it a sacrament. He takes bread and wine, and says, “This is my body, which will be given up for you.” And he tells them, “This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.”

Yes, this total offering and gift of Himself on the cross, this gift of His body for the forgiveness of sins, is now given to His bride, the Church, in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. We become united to Him, to His body and blood, His soul and divinity; that marriage between divinity and humanity is fulfilled in us!

And finally, after God takes on a body, after He gives us His body, and is living in us, and we in Him, He sends us out to proclaim the gospel and give ourselves like we never could before. Now that God lives in us, we have the ability to fulfill the Law of the Gift and truly live like Christ in this world.

I mention those three things specifically because those are the themes that I will be speaking on for the three days of our mission.

On Monday night, we will look at John Paul II’s teachings on the “Theology of the Body,” how God becomes man and shows us, in His body, the full gift of love when He unites Himself to and marries our humanity. We will see how He has left an undeniable stamp of this desire for unity in the hearts, souls, minds and bodies of every single one of us.

On Tuesday we will look at our late Holy Father’s teachings on the Eucharist. The last Encyclical Letter John Paul II wrote was on the Eucharist. In October, 2004, he introduced the Year of the Eucharist, and he died in the middle of it. One of his last gifts to the Church is found in his teachings on the Eucharist. We’ll look at that on Tuesday.

Finally, on Wednesday night we will look at Pope John Paul II’s “plan” for the third millennium, how we are all called to go out and live the Christian message and bring the Good News of Christ to those around us.

Please consider joining us this Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night, at 7:00pm each evening, for the Parish Mission. Each night of the mission will be in the context of the Mass, as we draw ever closer to Christ, our Bridegroom, and listen to The Spiritual Legacy of Pope John Paul II.

How is God challenging you and me to draw closer to Christ this Lent, and to live the Law of the Gift, giving ourselves more freely and completely to God and those around us?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Repentance, Renewal, New Life...Now!

(Ash Wednesday-Year A;This homily was given 6 February, 2008, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; read Matthew 6:1-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2)

How many times have you received ashes on your forehead and listened to the message of repentance and renewal that is proclaimed every Ash Wednesday?

How many times have you begun this Lenten journey with prayer, fasting and almsgiving, the practices which Christ talks about in the gospel this day?

So then, what is different about this Ash Wednesday, 2008, and what is different about this Lent, than every other one that has come before it? The answer, I believe, is found in our second reading, from St. Paul.

St. Paul, writing to the church at Corinth, to the church that he founded; to the church that he preached the gospel to, and taught the message of forgiveness and the mercy of God; about how Jesus Christ suffered and died for us on the cross to offer us everlasting life and an intimate relationship with Himself; to that church, and the men and women he loved, St. Paul offers a most serious and sober warning:

We appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.
—2 Corinthians 6:1

In other words, St. Paul is warning them—in love—not to listen to this great message of mercy and forgiveness, not to hear God’s offer of intimacy and love, and then fail to respond to it.

It would be better to have never heard of Christ and the gospel message, than to have heard and understood it and then live as if we do not belong to Him. Do not do that, St. Paul is warning them…and us.

Continuing, he goes on to quote the words of God to His people in the Old Testament, taken from the Prophet Isaiah:

In an acceptable time I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you.

And then, finally, he gives the answer to the question I asked at the beginning of this homily, about why this Ash Wednesday and this Lent is different from any other one before it, and why this moment is different for the church at Corinth than any other moment:

“Now,” says St. Paul, “is the very acceptable time;
behold, now is the day of salvation.”
(2 Corinthians 6:2)

Now is the time that Christ is working in our lives.

Last year, last Lent, however well or poorly we responded to God, all that is over. We cannot change a single thing that has happened to this point.

But right now is the day of salvation, when Jesus Christ is calling us to Himself, to turn from sin and be faithful to the gospel.

Now we are called to respond to this great message of grace and mercy.

Now we are called to an intimate and growing relationship with God.

How are we called to pray, fast and give alms at this moment, at this time in our lives? How is God challenging us to make this Lent different by giving ourselves totally and completely to Him…


Sunday, February 03, 2008

Beatitude Adjustment

(4th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 2 & 3 February, 2008, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; Read Matthew 5:1-12)

Do you need a “beatitude adjustment?” That is the question we are forced to ask ourselves this weekend in light of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Christ begins that great oration with what we have come to know as the Beatitudes.

The word “beatitude,” is a Latin word that means “blessed” or “happy,” and we discover right away that Jesus is not talking about the blessedness or happiness that we usually hear about in our culture.

When people talk about happiness, what they often mean is someone who has the wealth, power or influence to live the way they want to; many see happiness as a life without troubles or difficulties, basically carefree. It is a life—at the very least—without pain, suffering or sorrow.

Jesus takes that vision of happiness and turns it upside down in our gospel! He stands on the mountaintop and boldly proclaims:

Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are they who mourn…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness…
—Matthew 5:3-12

We can imagine the reaction of the people listening to that message for the very first time. They must have been scratching their heads, and asking:

How on earth are these people happy?
For heaven’s sake, what kind of blessedness is that?

What Christ was challenging them—and also every one of us—to do is to make a “beatitude adjustment;” to look at happiness, blessedness, and even eternal life from a fresh perspective. Christ challenges us to see this earth and heaven itself, in an entirely different way.

One of the greatest works of Christian literature ever produced is the Italian classic, The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri. It is a powerful story about the journey to eternal life and beatitude, but that story begins on a very sad and sorry note. Dante begins in medias res, revealing the consequences of a life poorly lived:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost.

He was lost, alone and in the dark, seemingly without God. But then, suddenly, he looks up and his entire perspective changes. He sees the mountain of God, way off in the distance, shining in the sun. He recognizes that this is what he has been missing, this is the vision God has called him to, and his heart quickens. He immediately makes his way towards that mountain, resolute on its ascent.

No sooner does he begin his climb, however, when he encounters three terrifying and ferocious beasts: the leopard, the lion and the she-wolf. They each represent—in Dante’s world—the things within us which are base and most opposed to the vision of God.

The leopard, beautiful to look at but very dangerous, represents all the sensual pleasures of this life. The lion, “his head held high” represents pride, arrogance and self-importance. Finally, the she-wolf embodies the cravings we have for the things of this world only: it is our greed, lust, and all those earthly vices that are never satiated, never satisfied.

Cleary Dante is no match for these creatures, and so he is forced to turn his vision, instead, downward…all the way down. He journeys into the depths of the Inferno, in the realm of Hell, and there he sees the men and women who have made the worse choices of all. He looks at sin and all its ugly consequences, and it makes him physically sick.

Eventually he makes his way up into the Purgatorio, where he begins to become purified, purged of all self love. He now understands clearly how very much he is in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness, and how willing God is to pour out that mercy!

Only now is he ready and capable of taking in the vision that captured his heart from the very beginning! He has received a “beatitude adjustment,” and he is ready to enter into the Paradiso, and to stand with all the blessed in heaven, beholding God Himself for all eternity.

Are we ready to make that same adjustment in our own life? Are we ready to adjust our vision of ourselves so that we can take in the beauty and majesty of the living God?

One of the most beloved saints down through the centuries has been “the poverello” from the small Italian city of Assisi, St. Francis. His humility and holiness are renowned. Catholic author G. K. Chesterton describes how Francis’ conversion and transformation came about through a series of ongoing humiliations. Willingly and voluntarily, as well as through the mysterious action of God, St. Francis was stripped of everything that would have given him comfort and consolation in this world.

It was, Chesterton describes, as if Francis’ life was slowly turned upside down. He was forced to see life from an entirely different perspective: one of total and absolute dependence upon God. That, describes Chesterton, is the way we should all view the world around us.

In his biography on the life of St. Francis, Chesterton says:

If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasize the idea of dependence… He would be thankful to God for not dropping the whole cosmos like a vast crystal to be shattered into falling stars.

Perhaps St. Peter saw the world so, when he was crucified head downwards… men have said “Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.”

It was in a wholly happy and enthusiastic sense that St. Francis said, “Blessed is he who expecteth nothing, for he shall enjoy everything.” It was by this deliberate idea of starting from zero…that he did come to enjoy even earthly things as few people have enjoyed them.

That, in the words of G.K. Chesterton, is St. Francis’ “beatitude adjustment.” It is what enabled him to see that his own happiness, blessedness, and everything else in this world, was completely dependent upon God.

Now let us read Jesus’ teaching of the beatitudes in that key. Christ says:

Blessed are the poor in spirit…

Why are they blessed? Because they are totally dependent upon God to provide for them in everything…and He will!

Blessed are they who mourn…

Why are they blessed? Because they are not dependent upon the good things and good feelings of this life for happiness; their happiness, their consolation and their joy completely depends upon God…and He is so ready and willing to give them that consolation and joy!

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…

Why are they blessed? Because they are not dependent upon the justice and satisfaction of this world only; they have a satisfaction and a justice—and mercy—that comes from God Himself. How could they not be blessed by that?

How is God challenging us to embrace these beautiful and rewarding teachings in our own lives? How are we called to make a “beatitude adjustment?”

How are we being called this week to recognize, along with Dante, that we are sinners in desperate need of the mercy of God, and that He has a desperate desire to give us that mercy?

How are we called to stand on our heads, and like St. Francis, to see the world around us as totally dependent upon God?

May we truly come to see how blessed we are by God in this life, and receive in its fullness the beatitude He is calling us to in eternal life.