Sunday, July 14, 2013

What Motivates You?

Crucifixion, sketched by St. John of the Cross

(15th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given on 13 July at St. Francis Xavier in East Providence, R.I. and 14 July at St. Elizabeth in Bristol, R.I. See Colossians 1:15-20 and Luke 10: 25-37)

What motivates you?  What are you passionate about?  What is the driving force behind what you do, day in and day out?  Certainly for many people it is family, relationships, hopefully our vocation (be it Marriage, Priesthood or Religious Life).  But sadly for many people in our culture today the answer to those questions is not very inspiring. 

For many people today, what they are passionate about is reality TV!  We know from the ratings that people will spend hours and hours watching reality television shows, living vicariously through dysfunctional personalities that are anything but “real.”  For others the motivating force in their life is sports.   There is nothing wrong with following our favorite sports team and keeping up on our favorite players.  But if all of our time and resources are going into memorabilia and tickets that we cannot afford, or if we have left no room for anything else but the sports we enjoy then our passion has become an obsession and that game will not end well. 

For some, their passion may be work or financial investments—all good things—but if we allow them to consume our lives those very same things can become destructive. 

St. Thomas Aquinas would caution us to be prudent when it comes to our passions.  Which leads me to the point of this homily: What about the saints?  What were they passionate about?   What motivated the saints of God down through the ages?  What was the driving force behind everything they did, day in and day out?  In a word: GOD!

The saints were passionate about knowing God.  They were driven by the question: “Who is God and what is He like?   They were practically obsessed with knowing what God wanted, so that they could do those things.   The saints longed to discover what God hated and disdained, so that they could avoid those things.  They wanted to know God.  Passionately.  Always.  Everywhere.

One of the most passionate among them is the Apostle, St. Paul.  In our Second Reading this weekend, St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, he shares with us what he has discovered about God through the person of Christ Jesus:

Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God.
—Colossians 1:15

From the first day that he encountered Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus (see Acts 9:1-19), St. Paul’s life was forever changed as he suddenly came into intimate contact with Jesus Christ.  In his Letter to the Colossians he is communicating from experience that what was once mysteriously hidden in God is now visible and tangible in the person of Jesus Christ.  Do you want to know what God thinks about this world in which we live?  Look no further than Jesus Christ, who comes here to save us and set us free from our slavery to sin.  Do you want to know how God cares for the most vulnerable and weak of this world? Look to Christ, who neither bruises the fragile reed nor snuffs out the smoldering wick (Matthew 12:20).   Do you want to know what God abhors and opposes with all of His divine strength?  Look to Christ who tolerates no hypocrisy and lays waste the mountains of pride (Luke 3:4-6).

But St. Paul, of course, would never wish us to look to Christ as a mere example.  For all that Christ would teach St. Paul by His way of life and His inspired doctrine, the image of the invisible God St. Paul refers to is a living image, not a deceased one.  Jesus Christ does not merely teach us how to live and show us the way.   He lives in us and allows us to follow His commandments in the most effective and life-giving way imaginable.  St. Paul knew that. 

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul asks: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).  We live in an entirely different way because Jesus Christ lives in us.

In his dramatic appeal to the Church at Galatia St. Paul will proclaim: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).  Following Jesus Christ is nothing less than a personal and intimate encounter with the one who is Himself “the image of the invisible God.”  He not only teaches us and guides us in the way to eternal life.  He also lives in us through the power of Baptism in the most intimate and dynamic of ways.  Understanding this wonderful truth allows us to fully grasp what Christ is communicating to us this weekend in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

When Jesus Christ relates that parable He is not merely addressing His audience as a motivational speaker.  He is not trying to say, “The Good Samaritan is a man who did good things for people.  Now you, too, should go and do lots of good things.”  No, it is something far more personal than that.  In fact, St. Augustine frames that parable in the context of our salvific relationship with Jesus Christ, our Redeemer.

St. Augustine says that the Good Samaritan in that parable is Jesus Christ Himself, who comes to us not from some foreign country but from another world altogether.  The one who has been beaten and robbed, lying half-dead by the side of the road, says Augustine, is Fallen Adam.  Waylaid by Satan and his minions, Adam has been stripped of his ability to live the life he was created for.  There is nothing that he can do now to change that.  Suddenly this Good Samaritan from Heaven, Jesus Christ the Son of God, sees him and is “moved with compassion at the sight” (Luke 10:33).   He pours the oil and wine of the Sacramental Life upon him, says Augustine, bringing healing and wholeness.  He pays for the recovery and redemption of Adam not with two silver coins but with His own self-gift, His body and blood offered graciously and with great love on the altar of the cross.  What a Good Samaritan indeed!

We do well to look to the great Spanish mystic and Doctor of the Church, St. John of the Cross, who poetically expresses the heart of this Good Samaritan and why He felt so motivated to take on our humanity and save us.  He writes, in his “Stanzas Applied Spiritually to God and the Soul”:

A lone young shepherd lived in pain
withdrawn from pleasure and contentment,
his thoughts fixed on a shepherd-girl
his heart an open wound with love.

He weeps, but not from the wound of love,
there is no pain in such affliction,
even though the heart is pierced;
he weeps in knowing he’s been forgotten.

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.

The shepherd says: I pity the one
who draws herself back from my love,
and does not seek the joy of my presence,
though my heart is an open wound with love for her.

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.

It may seem hard for us to imagine, but God is more saddened by our unwillingness to turn to Him for help and healing than He is by the sins we commit.  How far He is willing to go—willing even to bow to “brutal handling in a foreign land”—if only we will recognize Him as our Divine Bridegroom and return love for love.  The Good Samaritan has come so far, and given so much!

The heart of Jesus Christ is “an open wound with love,” waiting for us to return to Him and to receive the healing and forgiveness we all long for.  If that does not motivate us, than nothing will!

Friends in Christ, there are not enough motivational speakers in the entire world to transform us deep within and take us away from the selfishness and the sins that so easily beset us.  There are not enough hours of motivational talks or enough authors of motivational books to ever effect the change that we all pine for in our personal lives and in society. 

Yet one Man, who is Himself “the image of the invisible God” has the power to change and transform our souls and the world around us.  How is God challenging each of us to encounter that one Man, that Good Samaritan, this week?  How might we allow the Sacramental Life of the Church—the regeneration we have received in Baptism; the grace of forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation; the power of Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist; the outpouring of the Holy Spirit we have received at Confirmation; and the Sacraments in which Christ has poured the oil and wine of salvation upon us—how might we allow that new life to heal us and set us free to live the Christian life like never before?

Because the world we live in is desperate to see “the image of the invisible God,” desperate to encounter the living God, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in a personal and meaningful way.  Might they see and encounter Him more completely in us this week. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Forgiveness: Why? How?

(Thursday of the 14th Week in Ordinary Time; This homily was given on 11 July, 2013 at St. Francis de Sales Church, North Kingstown, R.I.  See Genesis 37-50)

One of the more beautiful and admirable attributes of the saints—but also one that can be a bit dangerous if we are not careful—is their remarkable willingness and even desire to forgive and make excuses for those who cause them harm. 

I say beautiful and admirable because it is an imitation of Jesus Christ who, as he experienced the agony of the cross, prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).  However plain it seems to us that these persons knew precisely what they were doing, Christ challenges us in our perceptions and cautions us not to judge the intentions we can never fully know.  He makes excuses for them and expresses, even in the midst of his suffering, the desire that they be forgiven.

But at the same time, to make excuses for those who do evil can be dangerous.  It can allow for its continuation and perpetuate the sin.  Psychologists speak of codependency and the consequences of enabling others to continue in their destructive behavior.  Certainly Christ is not advocating that.  It is a careful balance we must strike, because we believe in a God of unfathomable mercy but also in a God of justice. 

A wonderful, and I would say also timely, example for us in this careful balance between forgiveness and justice is Blessed John Paul II (soon to be canonized St. John Paul II).  Shot at point blank range in St. Peter’s square in 1981, he nearly died from that assassination attempt.  Yet once he had recovered enough to speak he broadcast a message to the entire world: “I pray for that brother of ours who shot me, and whom I have sincerely pardoned.”

That brother of ours?  By no means was Blessed John Paul II referring here to the fraternal bond of baptism.  The assassin, Mehmet Ali Ajca, was not a Christian.  The Pope was simply referring to this person’s dignity as one created in the image of God and, in a certain sense, making excuses by separating the man from the act of destruction he had so deliberately carried out.  What is often missed in John Paul’s offer of forgiveness and his subsequent pastoral visit to “this brother of ours” is the fact that Blessed John Paul II was in total agreement that Ajca, who had already taken the life of a journalist, be locked up in jail! 

We believe in forgiveness and mercy, but also that dangerous criminals should be kept off the streets.   We are not blind to the fact that those who have committed heinous crimes owe a debt to society; their acts of violence have penal ramifications. 

Why do I mention these things this morning?  Firstly, they are important for us to reflect on because every single one of us, at one time or another, has been hurt by the words or actions of others.  What does forgiveness mean for us, and how should we pursue it?  On a broader level, as recent as this morning our newspapers display criminals who have committed acts of violence against innocent people; the call for justice, even retribution, echoes from the radio and television news stations daily.  As Christians we are called to embrace forgiveness and mercy but by no means are we to forget the demands of justice and the responsibility to make the world a safer place.  It is not easy to discern how we should respond to the demands of the Gospel, which Christ and saints like John Paul II have modeled so well for us.  In our first reading this morning, however, the patriarch Joseph teaches us beautifully how to begin. 

We are all familiar with the Old Testament story of Joseph.  Sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, they scarcely held themselves back from killing him outright.  Joseph suffered greatly during his sojourn in the land of Egypt but the hand of God was always with him.  In time he would come to be one of the most powerful leaders in the nation, second only to Pharaoh himself.  It was through Joseph’s wisdom and strong leadership that provisions were made while the world as they knew it experienced a devastating famine.  Many nations were spared as God worked powerfully through this slave who rapidly came to rule over the land of Egypt.

But now, in our reading this morning, his brothers have come to Egypt to receive that sustenance without which they will die.  They do not know that it is Joseph, the brother they have abandoned, who now holds their fate in his hands.  How many of us would relish the opportunity to settle the score?  Joseph has a chance to pay them back for all that they have done to him…but instead he chooses to make excuses for them!  Revealing himself, to their astonishment, he declares:

I am you brother Joseph, whom you once sold into Egypt.  But now do not be distressed and do not reproach yourselves for having sold me here.  It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you.
—Genesis 45:4-5

Joseph is not only willing to make excuses for his brothers and forgive them, but he is also able to see the hand of God at work in his adversity and in his daily life.  I would suggest that this is the essential starting point for us if we are to move in the direction of forgiveness and the way of mercy that the Gospel entails.  

Joseph was able to ask not merely, “God, why did you allow this to happen to me?” but also, “God, where are you working in my life now?  Where are you in all of this that I am experiencing each day?”  His ability to ask these questions would later enable him to say to these same brothers, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Genesis 50:20).

Where perhaps is God asking us to see His work in our daily lives, either through the adversity we experience or in spite of it?  Where is He challenging us to view our lives and the world around us from a Divine perspective, so that we, too, might receive the grace to make excuses for those around us; to see brothers and sisters instead of only adversaries; to seek, without ever forgetting the demands of justice, the desire nonetheless to forgive and to have mercy.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Francis, Rebuild My Church!

St. Francis of Assisi, before the crucifix 
in the Church of San Damiano

(14th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given on 6 July at St. Joseph Church in Pascoag, R.I.  See Galatians 6:14-18 and Luke 10: 1-20)

The Opening Prayer for the Mass (referred to as the Collect, for it "collects" or gathers together the people of faith for the Eucharistic banquet) is offered by the priest as a means "through which the character of the celebration finds expression" (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, #54).  In other words, what we pray at the beginning of Mass is not arbitrary.  It essentially sets the tone for the celebration we are entering. 

The Collect for the Mass this weekend, the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, addresses God and gathers the Church in a deeply theological and personal way:

O God, who in the abasement of your Son
have raised up a fallen world,
fill your faithful with holy joy,
for on those you have rescued from slavery to sin
you bestow eternal gladness.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

This prayer is a beautiful expression of the mystery of our salvation and the call we have received to eternal union with God.  Through the humility of God who, in the person of Christ has taken on our humanity, we have been raised up to eternal life.  Because Christ was willing to humble himself even to the point of His cruel death on the cross, we have been exalted to the heights of heaven with Him.

It is not the case that everyone quite naturally goes to heaven at the end of this earthly life.  We do not believe that those who have lived "decent" lives and have avoided most of the "notorious" sins have now deserved to dwell in a heaven of their choosing.  In fact, no one goes to heaven and no one enters eternal life except through the abasement and self-sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, God's eternally begotten Son (see John 14:6).  That is the glory of God and the greatest expression of mercy the world has ever experienced.  We, who have been "rescued from slavery to sin," have now been given "eternal gladness," a share in God's own Divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) which we could never have merited on our own.  This is the work of God, and how glorious that He—through the proclamation of the Gospel—allows us a share and a participation in that magnificent and life-giving work! 

Christ this weekend sends out seventy-two disciples to announce the Gospel message and to proclaim, "The Kingdom of God is at hand for you" (Luke 10: 9).  The men and women who are able to accomplish that work most effectively and most powerfully down through the centuries, of course, are the saints.  But their ability to change the world around them is a direct consequence of their willingness to surrender their lives to the power of the Holy Spirit in God's plan of salvation.  God, who in the abasement of His Son has raised up a fallen world, continues to do so though the self-surrender of the saints.  It is not our gifts and efforts that bring about the salvation of the world.  No, it was, is and always will be the Gift and the supreme self-sacrifice of God Almighty.  The saints are the ones that remind us of that in every age.

This weekend I would like to focus on one of the greatest saints who ever lived: St. Francis of Assisi.  A few short months ago the Cardinals of the Church elected Jorge Cardinal Bergolio to the See of Peter.  He could have chosen any name he wanted.  He chose to take the name of Francis.   Understanding the life of St. Francis of Assisi can perhaps help us understand why.

St. Francis was born at the end of the 12th century during a very difficult and turbulent time for the Church and the world.  People today are quick to use the word "crisis" when it comes to the Church; whether it be parish closings or a shortage of vocations, they express the situation as dire.  In many instances that estimation may be an accurate one.  Still, if we look at the Church beyond the borders of our own nation, in many places of the world parishes and vocations are thriving.  The word "crisis" does not want of an easy or facile application.  Nonetheless, in the time of St. Francis the Church was in much worse shape than some find it today.  It was not only the skeptics and the naysayers who lamented the Church's predicament.  God Himself expressed His concern over its sorry state!

The story takes us back to a small, abandoned and decrepit church in the foothills of Assisi called San Damiano.  A young Francis was praying there, alone, amidst walls that were crumbling and a roof desperately in need of repair.  Suddenly from the cross Jesus Christ spoke to him: 

"Francis!  Rebuild my Church, which as you can see is falling down around you."  

The simple Francis, interpreting that voice of command quite literally, began to shore up the walls and mend the roof of the Church of San Damiano.  But The Lord meant the whole Church, the visible Body of Christ on earth!  Because St. Francis was so humble and holy, God was able to accomplish that very thing in the course of time.  Through the abasement of the humble Francis, God was able to raise up a fallen world and to bring about a genuine renewal in the Church which began in his lifetime and continued for centuries.

St. Francis would come to be totally identified with Jesus Christ throughout his life and ministry.  He was referred to as an alter Christus, another Christ, because of his humility and deep love for God and man (not to mention more than a few animals). 

In our Second Reading for this weekend St. Paul is speaking about this mystery of identification with Christ.  His Apostolic ministry has been called into question by much lesser would-be disciples, and St. Paul does not hesitate to remind the Church of Galatia of all that he has suffered for Christ and the work of the Gospel.  He says, in typical Pauline fashion:

From now on, let no one make troubles for me; for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body.
Galatians 6: 17  

The Greek word for "marks" that St. Paul uses is stigmata.  It means literally the wounds of Christ.  That word would take on a whole new significance in the life of St. Francis of Assisi who, towards the end of his life, received an experience in prayer in which the five wounds of Christ were translated into his very body.  Whenever you look at an image or statue of St. Francis you will see the wounds of Christ in his hands, his feet and his side.  He was that closely identified with our Lord Jesus Christ! 

How desperately the Church today needs disciples of Christ who are willing to be identified more completely with Him!  Not, of course, that we all need to receive the stigmata, but that we are willing to share in Christ's abasement and humility which allows the power of God to work in and through us to raise up our fallen world.  We lose nothing when we surrender ourselves to God in this way.  It is God who cares for us and insures that no sacrifice, no act of humility, no offer of surrender to Him for the sake of His Church and the benefit of world will go unanswered or unrewarded.

The seventy-two disciples in our Gospel this weekend return from their mission overwhelmed with joy and a sense of accomplishment.  They rejoice with Christ, saying "Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name" (Luke 10: 17).  Jesus rejoices along with them: "I saw Satan fall like lightening from the sky" (Luke 10:18).  The Devil's destructive reign is drawing definitively to a close.  There is indeed cause for rejoicing here!  Nonetheless, Christ appropriately focuses these disciples on the most important outcome of their missionary journey:

Do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.
—Luke 10:20

Satan and the demons have been cast out of heaven forever, but God, in His just providence and merciful love, has now replaced these fallen ones, writing the names of Christ's humble disciples permanently in heaven in their places.

In the upper level of the Basilica of St. Francis in the City of Assisi there is a painting by Giotto of a vision one of the friars had while St. Francis was still alive. In that vision the friar saw numerous thrones set up in heaven. Some were larger and more ornate than others, but one of them stood out among them all. A voice then said to that friar:

“This throne belonged to one of the angels cast out of paradise; now it is reserved for the humble Francis.”

How is God challenging us this week to walk in the footsteps of the humble St. Francis of Assisi?  How are we called to be more fully identified with Jesus Christ, whose abasement and humble service to the Divine will of His Father raised up our fallen world? 

Perhaps if we are willing to surrender ourselves to His glorious work more and more completely in our own lives we may also come to discover that God has reserved a place in heaven for us among the saints.