Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Witness of the Empty Tomb

(Easter Sunday-Year B; This homily was given on 12 April, 2009, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See Colossians 3:1-4 and John 20:1-9)

Each Sunday, week after week, we gather together in this Church to listen to the Gospel. That word, Gospel, literally means “Good News,” and it is the expression of all that we have received from God in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ.

We hear that good news announced from St. Paul in the epistles, and in various way through the Apostles of the early Church. We listen to the Gospel especially from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—the Four Evangelists—who relate everything we long to hear about Jesus Christ, for He Himself is the Gospel, He is the good news of our life and our salvation.

So, isn’t it a little odd that in the Gospel passage we just listened to, on one of the greatest feasts of the entire liturgical year, He is not even there at all? We do not listen to His life-giving words or see His saving actions, because the greatest witness to the good news that God provides for us this Easter morning is the empty tomb itself. That empty tomb proclaims a powerful message indeed, if we are open and able to hear what God is trying to communicate to us through it.

You may have seen the movie Good Will Hunting. It came out several years ago, and won all kinds of awards. This young man named Will is a born genius, a brilliant child prodigy, but he has grown up in the streets of South Boston, so he is constantly getting into trouble with the law, constantly in and out of the courts. Some influential people discover his incredible gifts and talents and they try to give him an opportunity to get out of “Southy” and offer him a whole new lease on life.

At one point in the movie, Will is working construction with his best friend, who suddenly realizes that Will, despite the opportunities he has been given, has no intentions of leaving South Boston. The friend, recognizing that Will has the ability to accomplish things that they could never even dream of, becomes quite serious and says to him:

“Every day I come by to pick you up, and we go out together, we have a few laughs. But you know what the best part of my day is? The ten seconds before I knock on the door, ‘cause I let myself think I might get there, and you’d be gone. I’d knock on the door and you wouldn’t be there. You just left.”

***Spoiler Alert***

And if you have seen the movie then you know that is exactly what happens at the end. His friend goes to pick him up, but he finds an empty house instead. Good Will Hunting is gone. He had made it out of South Boston and, in a certain sense, had taken all of his friends with him.

Mary Magdalene and the other disciples come to an empty tomb this morning and, without realizing it yet, they stand before the greatest event that has ever taken place. The empty tomb is the doorway, the entrance through which all of us now have access to eternity. Jesus’ resurrection affects us all.

Christ came and destroyed sin and death by rising from the dead, just as he said he would. That fact changes everything . . . or at least it should. It should move us to look at death, and even at life, in a whole new way.

That is the good news of the Gospel: that all the economic problems of this world, all the financial and familial difficulties, all the injustices and sufferings of this present life WILL NOT LAST. We can live in this world and have hope even in the midst of trials and difficulties, for we belong to Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord. That changes everything!

St. Paul, in our second reading this morning, reminds us of the focus we must have as followers of Jesus Christ and those who have understood the witness of the empty tomb. He says:

If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory.
—Colossians 3:1-4

The empty tomb challenges us to see everything in that eternal perspective. It challenges us to seek reconciliation with those we are in conflict with; challenges us to evaluate our lives and be willing to change anything that is incompatible with this heavenly calling, because this world is not all there is and heaven simply cannot wait.

Just a few days ago I was able to visit my grandparents in St. Anne’s Cemetery just a few feet from where we celebrate this Mass this morning. I knelt down in the grass before that stone which marks so many of the people who have passed on the faith that I live and profess today. I am a priest of Jesus Christ today because of them, and because of all those faithful souls in my family who have passed the faith down to my parents, who taught that faith to me. It was a privilege and a joy to be able to pray there and to spend some time remembering them. I know that so many of you have loved ones in the very same place, and in cemeteries throughout this state and beyond.

But the witness of the empty tomb reminds us today that those graves will not always be places of remembrance; they are not the final resting place for the ones who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. At the heart of our Christian faith is the belief that those graves will one day all be empty! Have you ever thought about that?

When Jesus Christ returns—and He will, because He said He would—this cemetery here will be the busiest and liveliest place in the State of Rhode Island! The place of greatest activity and abundant life will not be Fenway Park or Gillette Stadium; it will not be the Providence Place Mall or Showcase Cinema. It will be right here, in St. Anne’s Cemetery, where thousands of souls and bodies will suddenly be raised from the dead to be joined to Christ forever. That is what the witness of the empty tomb challenges us to acknowledge this morning.

There’s a very moving passage in the Confessions of St. Augustine in which Augustine’s mother, St. Monica, is about to die. They are in a foreign country, far from home. Augustine and his brother are standing by the bedside, and the brother says to Monica that he would like her to be brought back home so that she might not die in a strange country. Monica—who was a tough woman, even on her deathbed—reproaches him, and says to both him and St. Augustine:

“Bury my body wherever you will. One thing only do I ask: that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.”

Monica understood the meaning of the resurrection; she listened well to the witness of the empty tomb. This is not our home; it is not our final destination. This is just a stop along the way and the greatest thing that we can do while we are on our way home to God is to remember each other “at the altar of the Lord.”

That is what we are doing here this morning. We gather around this altar because we have the answer to Mary Magdalene’s dilemma: she thought that someone had taken the Lord and she did not know where they had put Him. We know where He is: He is in that tabernacle, and in a moment He will be here on this altar.

We are never closer to our deceased loved ones, and to each other, and to our Lord, than when we gather together here at the altar of the Lord. We come here today as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and we are strengthened in the Holy Eucharist so that we can say, with St. Paul and all those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, that we “seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.”

We are called to “think of what is above, not of what is on earth.” For we have died, and our life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ our life appears, then we too will appear with him in glory (see Colossians 3:1-4).

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday, Gethsemane and the Garden of Paradise

(Good Friday-Year A; This homily was given on 10 April, 2009, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See John 18:1-19:42)

If you go all the way back to the beginning of the Scriptures, to the opening pages of the Book of Genesis, you will find there God’s dream for the entire human family. It is God’s one great desire for the whole created world, presented to us in the image of a garden.

In that garden we discover a man and a woman, and they are in love; they are in love with each other, and in love with God. There is perfect harmony between the man and the woman; between them and our Lord, and there is a deep harmony between them and all creation.

But we need only look a few pages further, and in the pages of the Scriptures after that, to see God’s dream shattered and broken by selfishness and sin (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #400).

Suddenly Adam and Eve are cast out of that lush and fertile garden and introduced to a very different landscape. It is one marked by resistance and toil; there is pain and sorrow and the ground is stained with blood as Cain kills his brother Abel. Soon nations rise up against nations; there is destruction, devastation, division. It is a very dark place indeed compared to that Garden of Eden where it all began.

That is where our story picks up this evening as we read St. John’s account of the Passion of Christ. John begins by saying “Jesus went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to where there was a garden” (John 18:1).

Matthew, Mark and Luke have already told us how Christ knelt down in that garden, called Gethsemane. He knelt down in the dark and in great anguish and surrendered Himself to the will of His Father in order to regain all that had been lost by sin.

Recall back in Genesis how Adam and Eve had been told that they could eat from any of the trees in the garden, except one. God forbade them to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but they had defied Him and done so anyway. In essence they had said, “No, this is what we want, and we will do what we have chosen, not what you want.”

Now Jesus Christ kneels down in the Garden of Gethsemane and expresses from the depths of His being that He does not want to suffer and die…but, He says to His heavenly Father, “nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42).

We gather together on this Good Friday night to kneel down with Christ in that garden and recommit ourselves to Him. There is a beautiful poem written by Ella Wheeler Wilcox that describes the unavoidable encounter with the will of God that we must all face in that garden. The poem is called Gethsemane, and Wilcox begins:

Down shadowy lanes, across strange streams
Bridged over by our broken dreams;
Behind the misty caps of years,
Beyond the great salt font of tears,
The garden lies. Strive as you may,
You cannot miss it on your way.
All paths that have been or shall be,
Pass somewhere through Gethsemane.

All those who journey, soon or late,
Must pass within the garden’s gate;
Must kneel alone in darkness there,
And battle with some fierce despair.
God pity those who cannot say,
“Not mine but thine,” who only pray,
“Let this cup pass,” and cannot see
The purpose of Gethsemane.

—Ella Wheeler Wilcox

We are here tonight to recognize and acknowledge the purpose of Gethsemane and to recommit ourselves to that beautiful plan and dream of God that began so long ago. We are here to do what we could never have done before, but now have the power to do as baptized Christians: to say most completely, “Yes,” to the plan of God for our lives. We come here to be strengthened by Christ in the Eucharist and to echo His words to the Father: “Thy will be done.”

We must be careful, however, not to think that this is a one-time effort. God challenges us to constantly recommit ourselves to Him and to be open to His will every moment of each day in our lives.

About a year and a half ago I had one of the greatest opportunities of my priesthood, to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group of very dear friends, the Franciscan Sisters and Brothers of the Eucharist. At one point in the pilgrimage we were able to go inside the very Garden of Gethsemane, and it was there that I chose to kneel down and pray, wide open to whatever the Lord wanted to say to me in that moment.

What a privilege, I thought, to kneel right here in this place and say those same words of Christ. And do you know what I felt at that exact moment? Nothing! I did not have a supernatural experience or an overwhelming emotional sensation.

Surrendering ourselves to the will of God is not about feelings and emotions, nor is it a one-time event that we can go through, and then be done with it. No, we must repeat to God, thousands of times throughout our lives, “Thy will be done.” It is within a lifetime of surrender, in particular situations and across many years, that we submit ourselves to the grace of God and allow Him to regain in us all that has been lost by selfishness and sin.

Nor should be surprised when things do not immediately get better when we do so! We may not experience the fruits of our surrender to God in a quick and obvious way. Surrendering to God’s will is sometimes difficult and challenging. Sometimes it may seem that things have become worse.

Look at Christ in the Gospels. No sooner has he spoken the words, “Thy will be done,” then Judas enters to betray Him. He is dragged out of the garden, beaten, mocked and scourged. Finally, they crucify Him between two thieves. And just when things could not possibly seem worse, we are told by St. Matthew that the thieves themselves began to revile Christ, even as they were dying next to Him!

But suddenly, in that darkest moment, hope springs eternal. One of the thieves has a change of heart. He turns to Christ in a moment of faith and says, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). And Jesus’ response, of course, is both breathtaking and life-giving: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

That word, paradise, 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.

Jesus Christ is inviting that thief into the garden of eternal life, to an eternal relationship of love with Him. It is the same invitation that He is extending to us this evening, and one that He desired for all of those at the foot of the cross that Good Friday afternoon.

But, sadly, they missed it. They did not understand what He was doing or all the things He had told them about His suffering and death. So they did the very best thing they could do; in great sorrow they took His dead body down from the cross, and because it was late, they laid Him in a tomb nearby.

St. John tells us, at the very end of that passion narrative, that the tomb where they laid Him was located in, of all places, a garden. There they placed Him, in the ground, in the midst of a garden…

But of course, that is not the end of the story. There is so much more to the story than that, and if we want to hear the rest of it, we have only to wait three days.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Palm Sunday and Baptismal Grace

(Palm Sunday-Year B; This homily was given on 4 & 5 April, 2009 at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See Mark 14:1-17:47)

Each year we gather together on Palm Sunday—known traditionally as Passion Sunday—to read and listen to the Passion of Jesus Christ, how He suffered and died for our salvation. Of course, it is not the same one Gospel account that we listen to. We follow a three-year cycle that allows us to hear The Passion according to Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke, a separate one each year.

This year we hear St. Mark’s account, and Mark provides a detail for us that none of the other Evangelists include. It happens right after Christ is taken in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Matthew, Mark and Luke describe the arrest of Christ on that dark night. They all tell us how the disciples abandoned Jesus. But Mark alone tells us of a young man who still followed Christ, perhaps at a distance. He says that this young man, oddly, was “wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body” (Mark 14:51).

Apparently those arresting Jesus also recognized this young man as a disciple because they tried to take hold of him. St. Mark tells us how the young man escaped, “but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked” (Mark 14:52). It is a rather embarrassing event in the Gospel.

But we could ask ourselves this Palm Sunday, “Why does St. Mark include that detail and find it so important to describe for us that scene?” Some scholars say that he is trying to communicate something to his audience about the great dignity of Baptism.

In the early Church, when a person was baptized, he or she would often be fully immersed in water. Obviously they would go down into the water without clothing, and when they came up again they were newly baptized and had become “a new creation in Christ.” Immediately they would be clothed in a white, linen cloth to symbolize that they had put on Christ and now shared this new life of holiness with Him (we still do this today, when a child is “Christened” and dons a sparkling new baptismal gown).

What St. Mark is trying to communicate with the story of that young man is that he has tragically lost that connection, that holiness he once had as a follower of Christ. His newness of life and purpose for living—symbolized by that linen cloth—has been left behind as he flees naked in the opposite direction.

But the power of the Passion is that even while this is taking place, even as the disciples are fleeing and this young man is running, naked, away from Christ, even at that instant, Jesus Christ is pouring Himself out in love to suffer and die…so that they can come BACK!

Now that is why we never grow tired of coming here, every Palm Sunday, year after year, to listen to the account of the Passion of Jesus Christ! It is the central message of the Gospel and the incomprehensible, unfathomable mercy of God: that even knowing all along that we would sin and fall away from Him, even though we would sometimes move in the opposite direction of Christ, He pours Himself out in love for us anyway…so that, time and time again, we will come BACK!

I would suggest this Palm Sunday that God is calling all of us, more and more deeply within and perhaps even physically so, to come back. To come back to Christ, as He seeks to become the center of our life; to come back here to Jesus Christ in the Eucharist as He nourishes us and strengthens us in love.

This week, among all the other weeks of the year, is the time par excellence when God calls us to come back, and to come here to this Church. It is this week, the holiest week of the year, when we gather together to celebrate the Sacred Triduum:

God calls us this week to come back here, on Holy Thursday night to celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, remembering anew that night before Christ died, when He gave to His disciples—and to us—His sacred body and blood in the Eucharist.

God calls us to come back here, on Good Friday, to recall our Lord’s cross and the price He paid for our salvation.

God calls us back here, for the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday, when two members of our parish will be baptized and receive that baptismal garment for the first time; others will receive their first Eucharist and become fully initiated in the Catholic faith through Confirmation. God calls us back to celebrate these great mysteries, and to renew our own baptismal promises once again, just as we do every Easter.

God is calling each of us back, to be united more closely to Jesus Christ than ever before, because He is the One who poured Himself out in love for us all, so that we could draw close to Him and remain with Him forever.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Fides et Ratio and the Heights of Contemplation

(Wednesday of the 5th Week of Lent-Year B; This homily was given on 1 April, 2009 at the Chapel of The American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium; See John 8:31-42)

In the introduction to his encyclical letter on faith and reason—Fides et Ratio—our late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, mentions the temple at Delphi. Across the portal of that ancient Greek temple was the famous admonition “Know yourself.”

That axiom is at the very foundation of philosophy, for to know ourselves is to know our strengths and our weaknesses; it allows us to gain insight about our vices and deepen our understanding of the virtues. To know ourselves means to know how we relate to the world around us and how we relate, personally, to the people in our lives. “Know yourself” is the starting point for growing in wisdom and in all the knowledge that this world has to offer.

But John Paul II goes on to talk about how self-knowledge is only the minimum of what it means to be human. Deep within our hearts we long not only for knowledge regarding the truth about ourselves and the truth about the world we live in; we also yearn and long for the truth about God.

In fact, says John Paul II, God “has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth-in a word, to know Himself-so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves” (Fides et Ratio, Introduction).

When we know the truth about who we are in the image and likeness of God, then we begin to live and love in a whole new way. When we discover the love God has for us in Christ, then we are free to love like Him and become the men and women we were always created to be.

That is at the heart of what Christ is communicating in St. John's Gospel this morning when He says:

“If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
—John 8:31-32

If you remain in my word...

If you stay close to me…

If you do not allow obstacles to get in your way…

If you continue in this message of the gospel that I am making known to you…then “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

The more we come to know the truth about God, the more completely free we become, and all the more joyful in the Christian life. We are no longer slaves to sin, as Christ mentions in that Gospel, because we have come to know the truth about the forgiveness we have in Him.

There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8:39). We are given the grace to let go of the obstacles of sin and selfishness that had so easily beset us, and to persevere in the virtues that draw us closer to God and one another with our eyes and hearts set on Christ (see Hebrews 12:1). That truth changes us and allows us to grow in freedom like never before.

We can ask ourselves today:

Am I growing in knowledge of the truth, both the truth about myself and the world I live in, as well as the truth about the love of God in Christ?

Am I able to grow in wisdom and experience, in a philosophical sense, always open to the faith that God gives to all who seek Him?

If the answer is “Yes,” then we have what it takes to soar today to the very heights of heaven; John Paul II begins that encyclical, Fides et Ratio, with the following words:

Faith and reason are like two wings on which

the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.

May we reach those heights in our own lives today, and grasping that truth, may we experience the freedom of the sons and daughters of God (Romans 8:21).