Sunday, August 17, 2014

Salvation Through Christ

(20th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on 16 and 17 August 2014 at St. Brigid Church in Johnston, R.I.; See Romans 11:13-32 and Matthew 15:21-28)

In Christmas 2012 I had the wonderful opportunity of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with my dear friends the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist.  At one point we were walking through the ruins of the Temple of Jerusalem, of which Christ had prophesied, “there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2).  

As we continued on our way we came upon a group of Jewish art-history students; they were sitting along the path we were walking on, listening to a lecture about the Temple.  Realizing that we were passing through, they politely shuffled to each side of the walkway to let us by.  Suddenly a young Jewish woman smiled and said, with much kindness and perhaps in an attempt to allay the awkwardness of the moment, “Look, the Christians are parting the Jewish sea!”

The next day I spoke to the sisters about how theologically appropriate that comment was for that brief gathering of Jews and Christians.  The parting of the Red Sea is a remarkable event in Sacred Scripture that Jews and Christians alike both believe and cherish.  In fact, Christians believe that miraculous event is a foreshadowing and a sign of an even greater reality: Baptism.  Baptism?, You might be thinking.  How is Baptism a greater reality than the parting of the Red Sea?

At the Red Sea the People of Israel were being pursued by the Egyptians only to discover that they were completely closed in; in desperation they cried out for the Lord to save them.  Suddenly the waters opened up before them, and the Israelites “went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left” (Exodus 14:22).   As their enemies followed after them the waters closed up again, destroying them and making safe the passage to the Promised Land.

As Christians we believe that this miraculous event, which dramatically portrays the salvation of Israel from certain destruction, is a sign of our own salvation in Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ, who suffers and dies on the cross to destroy the enemies of sin and death, is raised up to new life on the third day.  When we are baptized into Christ, says St. Paul, we are baptized into His death so that we may walk, even now, in newness of life and share in His resurrection from the dead (see Romans 6:3-11). 

The Rite of Christian Baptism expresses this truth beautifully in the blessing and invocation of God over the water:

Through the waters of the Red Sea you led Israel out of slavery, to be an image of God’s holy people, set free from sin by baptism.

This great message of salvation comes to us first, of course, through the Jews.  In our Gospel this morning Jesus Christ announces that He has come specifically for “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).   God reveals His plan of salvation firstly to the Jews.  Unfortunately they did not completely receive Jesus as their Messiah.  To be sure, many of them did.  The Blessed Virgin Mary, a young Jewish girl from Nazareth, received Him tenderly and with great faith.  The Twelve Apostles accepted Him, as did a multitude of disciples throughout the nation of Israel.  But the majority of the Jewish people did not accept Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ.

St. Paul, once a staunch persecutor of the Church, after his conversion would travel from synagogue to synagogue announcing Jesus as the Messiah.  He was often met with resistance and rejection.  In our Second Reading today, in his Letter to the Romans, he is writing to the Gentiles (non-Jewish believers) about this mystery of salvation and speaking specifically to those who have accepted Christ.  He also writes of those who have yet to receive the Anointed One sent by God:

I am speaking to you Gentiles.  Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I glory in my ministry in order to make my race jealous and thus save some of them.
—Romans 11:13-14

St. Paul was a devout Jew.  He announces here his intention to stir up the Jewish people so that they will want the very graces being poured out mercifully on the Gentiles in the person of Jesus Christ.  Paul’s great desire is that the Jews would see the joy of forgiveness and a vibrant newness of life in these Christian believers and be moved with holy envy! 

At the same time St. Paul is reminding the Christian believers of his day—and also those of our own—that God has not forgotten the Jewish people.  This great message of salvation that came first to them is still extended to the Jews with great love.  “For the gifts and the call of God,” says St. Paul, “are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29).  They will always be the chosen people of God and the Messiah, for whom they long, ever longs for them.

These readings are extremely relevant for our times, when this message of salvation offered by God is so little understood.  We have all heard it said, “there are many different ways to God.”  Frequently people will insist that faith is completely subjective: the Jews follow their own particular faith, Christians follow Jesus and the Gospel, the Muslims follow the Quran, Buddhists follow the teachings of Buddha, etc.  In the end, we hear it said, everyone finds his or her own way to God.

But this is not the Gospel God revealed to the world in history and in time.

This is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This is not the Gospel that the Apostles and martyrs of the Church were willing to die for, nor is it the message that has been transmitted down through the centuries in the Roman Catholic deposit of faith.

In fact, there are not many different ways to God. 

There is only one Way: Jesus Christ.

In St. John’s Gospel Jesus Christ reveals plainly to His disciples: “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). 

Our Lord is not being egocentric; He is not appealing to some kind of religious elitism.  He is simply expressing the most essential truth of our salvation: that He alone has the power to redeem humanity and bring us home to eternal life.

Jesus Christ alone has the power, as God, to take on our humanity and bring our fallen human nature to the cross.  Jesus Christ alone is willing to suffer and die for the forgiveness of our sins.  Jesus Christ alone has the power to lay down His life and the power to take it up again (John 10:18), and we who are baptized into Christ have the power to be raised up again to eternal life with Him. 

You might be reading this now and thinking: That sounds really narrow!  What a narrow-minded way of understanding God and salvation.  And I would agree, because that is precisely the word Christ uses when He describes this way which leads to eternal life:

Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
—Matthew 7:13-14

This is not the way God would like the situation to be; it is the way He finds the situation to be.  There are many who move from day to day, without a real and living experience of the awesome presence of God in their lives.  There are many who feel overwhelmed by the guilt and shame that weigh heavily upon them and they long for a different experience of life.  They long for the forgiveness and peace of God.  Truth be told, they long for the mercy and grace that has the power to set their hearts free and flood their souls with light. 

We who have heard this message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and who walk in this narrow way are called to be that light in this world.  We are called to be that salt which preserves those who have found the God who is constantly searching for them.  How desperately the world needs believers to live their Christian faith with passion and vitality!  How desperately the world we live in needs to see the light of Jesus Christ in us!

This past Monday we heard of the tragic and shocking loss of the comic genius Robin Williams.  In the days that followed so many people tried to make sense of that difficult and painful reality of this troubled soul who chose to take his own life.  Perhaps the saddest attempt is the message posted on the marquee of the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles’s Sunset Boulevard, where Williams did stand-up comedy for years.  It read: 

Robin Williams
Rest in Peace
Make God Laugh

But God is not laughing after that terrible tragedy this past week.  God is not laughing any more than the rest of the people who truly loved Robin Williams are laughing.  This is a troubling and sad moment that really calls for a response of faith and not empty witticisms.   

We do not believe, as the marquee suggests, that everyone who dies, whatever the circumstances, suddenly goes to heaven and laughs with God.  What we believe is that God’s mercy is overwhelming and He is constantly reaching out to us until our final breath, and so in hope we pray for Robin Williams.  We commend his soul to God and ask that—through the mercy of God, through the blood of Christ, through the forgiveness God never ceases to offer until the final moment of life—Robin Williams may one day enjoy the laughter of God in that heavenly kingdom. 

How desperately our secular culture needs God!  More than laughter, more than entertainment, more than an empty and fleeting happiness, what we really need is faith! 

If we look to the Gospel this weekend we discover Christ drawing out the gift of faith in the Canaanite woman and in His own disciples.  This woman comes to Christ, begging for Him to heal her daughter.  Jesus’ response is one of silence.  The disciples ask Him to send her away for she is bothering them!  Christ does not heed their request either . . . It must have been very awkward in that room with all that silence.

Suddenly Christ begins to speak to the woman: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).  Both the disciples and the Canaanite woman continue to focus on Christ to see where this will lead.  Whatever they thought they knew about Him, He is testing them and helping them to grow in their desire for the things that matter most.  He often does that.

But then the dialogue seems to take a turn for the worse as Jesus say to the woman:  “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26).  What a response!  Yet this woman, to our amazement, is undaunted.  She must have sensed the great love with which Christ spoke those surprising words and seen the acceptance in His eyes, because she remains with Him.  She does not hesitate, perhaps with a sly smile of her own, to reply “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters” (Matthew 15:27). 

With that the dialogue comes to its conclusion and Christ finally reveals His hand: “O woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish” (Matthew 15:28), and her daughter, we are told, was immediately healed.  Faith brought healing into the world when Christ had made it strong enough to accomplish that healing.  He often does that, too.

Are we as prepared to persevere in our prayer and in our faith?  When we see the world growing darker in the violence of Iraq and in the persecution of so many innocent children, women and men?  When we see the sorrowful consequences of the choices so many people make in the world, and when some of those choices and consequences are ours, are we willing to seek out Christ and persevere in our faith?  Because however dark the world may grow, Jesus Christ will always seek to draw out light and hope for us and for those around us.  Might we be that light and persevere in our faith, like this Canaanite woman, so that the healing of God and the blessing of God will continue to touch this world, so desperately in need of Jesus Christ, the God of our salvation.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Pie Pellicane Iesu Domine

Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament 
in Christchurch, New Zealand
Source of photo:

(18th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on 3 August 2014 at St. Elizabeth Church in Bristol, R.I.; See Matthew 14:13-21)

What are some of the more popular or well-known images for Christ that we would recognize as Catholics?  Obviously one of the first images that comes to mind is the cross.  Christ has transformed that image—once a threatening symbol of the Roman Empire’s pitiless power—into the most potent expression of God’s total self-gift and love for us.  When we see the cross we are immediately reminded of Jesus Christ and His forgiveness; we are constantly reminded, in the cross of our Lord, of this grace of God offered to us all.

Another well-known image of Christ is found in the Chi-Rho.  The Chi-Rho looks like a great big letter “P” with an “X” through its base:

Actually, the “X” comes first and is the Greek letter “Chi” (pronounced “kī”) while the “P” is the Greek letter “Rho” (pronounced “rō”).  These are the first two letters in Christ’s name in Greek: Χριστος.

Christians for centuries would see those two Greek letters and immediately identified them with Jesus Christ.  We still see the Chi-Rho on vestments, engraved in chalices and in Catholic Churches everywhere. 

But perhaps a less known symbol for Christ is one that goes all the way back to the Second Century: the image of the pelican.  Early Christians would see the pelican apparently piercing her own breast with her enormous beak, and then proceeding to feed her young; in actuality, the pelican was clearing its beak of the small fish it had caught, and pressing them against her breast as she then passed them on to her nestlings.  The Christian faithful, nonetheless, saw here an image of Jesus Christ who allows Himself to be pierced so that He can feed us with His own body and blood in the Eucharist. 

If you visit many of the great Gothic cathedrals or magnificent basilicas throughout the world, in splendid marble altar pieces and luminous stained glass arrangements there are images of the pelican. 

In the 13th Century St. Thomas Aquinas, in his breathtaking Eucharistic hymn Adóro Te Devóte, wrote eloquently of Christ, the good and loving pelican:

Pie pellicáne Iesu Dómine
Me immúndum munda tuo sanguine
Cuius una stilla salvum fácere
Tótum múndum quit ab omni scélere.

O good and loving pelican, Jesus my Lord!
Unclean I am, but cleanse me in Thy Blood;
Of which a single drop, for sinners spilt,
Is ransom for a world’s entire guilt.

In the City of Brussels, in the beautiful Cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudula, there is a quiet sanctuary called Our Lady’s Chapel.  It is dedicated to Our Lady of Deliverance, and there is an impressive altar there held up by two enormous, sculpted pelicans.  One of them is piercing its side with its beak, while the other stretches its head up toward the altar.  Two generous wings, outstretched, support the altar above.  The symbol is clear: Christ allows Himself to be pierced and wounded on the altar of the cross so that He can feed us with His body and blood in the Eucharist.

I mention this image of the pelican because in our Gospel from St. Matthew this weekend we find a poignant expression of Jesus, the good and holy pelican.  St. Matthew tells us that Jesus has just learned of the death of St. John the Baptist.  Remember, John was His cousin; Jesus obviously loved him a great deal.  Having heard of John’s execution, Jesus did the most fitting and expected thing perhaps any one of us would have done, He “withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself” (Matthew 14:13).  He wanted to be alone with God.

Suddenly, though, the crowds who have anticipated His arrival surround Him as He disembarks.  There will be neither silence nor solitude for Christ in this grief-filled hour.  But how remarkable, the response of our Lord!  He does not become frustrated or flustered; He complains not in the least.  Instead we are told that “his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick” (Matthew 14:14).  In the midst of His own personal loss and from the depths of His vulnerability He loved them and He fed them.  Still fresh from the experience of the death of the Baptist, He who was still wounded reached into the depths of Himself and taught them.  He preached the Gospel of the Kingdom of God to them and they heard Him gladly, all day long.

As the sun begins to set the disciples will size up the situation and recommend that the Master dismiss the crowds.  There are thousands of people and they have nothing physically to eat.  “There is no need for them to go away,” Jesus responds, “You feed them yourselves” (Matthew 14:16).  The disciples were astounded.  Feed them with what?

Nonetheless, they bring to Him the simple offering of two loaves and five fish and Jesus, the good and loving pelican, brings the loaves to His breast and breaks them; He gives thanks to God for these gifts and then He distributes them to His disciples who in turn given them to the hungry crowd.

The great miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, of course, is a foreshadowing of the miracle of our Lord’s body and blood for us in the Eucharist.  On the night before He suffers and dies on the cross Jesus takes bread, exactly as He does here, and he breaks the bread, giving thanks to God and says, “Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my body which will be given up for you.”  He distributes His body and His blood to them at that sacred meal and commands them “Do this in memory of me.”  He who was pierced and wounded on the cross, this good and holy pelican, feeds us with Himself in the bread and wine that becomes His body and His blood for the life of the world. 

The Eucharist is simply the greatest Gift we could ever receive on this earth because it is the very Gift of God Himself in love for us.  But that Gift only comes to us through the hands of unworthy men whom God has chosen to be priests of Jesus Christ.  In every age, consistently and without failure down though the centuries, God has called unworthy men to be consecrated to Him and to participate in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ—to act in persona Christi capitis, in the person of Christ the Head of the Church—as he confects the holy Eucharist in the Sacred Liturgy.  God is calling men now, in our diocese, to answer this call and to become priests of Jesus Christ. 

One of the greatest challenges we face in our culture today, of course, is that it can be increasingly difficult to distinguish that voice and hear the call of God.

Our culture is one predicated on activity, productivity, entertainment and distraction.  As T.S. Eliot put it, we are “distracted from distraction by distraction.”  It can be difficult to tune-in to the voice of God, who speaks in silences and in whispers, but more powerfully and more efficaciously then wind, earthquake and fire (1 Kings 19:9-18).  What God asks of us who are now listening to Him is prayer. 

We pray that God will continue to call men to the priesthood of Jesus Christ here in our time in this place.  We pray that those whom God is already calling will have the courage to say, “Yes,” to this call and to be formed in the heart of Christ, in the heart of the Church.  We pray that men will continue to offer themselves generously in sacrifice and as instruments of grace in our often self-centered world, in imitation of Jesus the good and holy pelican.  May God continue to bless our diocese with priests who will offer up to God that one sacrifice of Jesus Christ, His body and His blood on the altar.  For it is His body alone which heals and saves us, and His blood,

Of which a single drop, for sinners spilt,
Is ransom for a world’s entire guilt.