Sunday, March 26, 2017

Animated, Awoken, Alive!

Pulpit in St. Bavo's Cathedral, in the City of Ghent, Belgium

(4th Sunday of Lent-Year A; This homily was given on March 25, 2017 at St. Eugene's Church in Chepachet, R.I. and March 26, 2017 at St. Peter's Church in Warwick, R.I.  See 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Ephesians 5:8-14 and John 9:1-41)

Most of us are familiar with the name, Helen Keller.  Unlike the man in the gospel this weekend, Helen Keller was born with the faculty of sight.  It was at the age of two that, struck by an unknown illness, she began to lose both sight and hearing.  Before she even realized what was taking place, her young life was locked into a world or darkness and silence.  The last word that she held on to was, "water," and that, also, was soon forgotten.

After several, painful years of trying to communicate with their dear daughter, a ray of hope dawned for Helen's parents.  There was a woman, they were told, who had a special gift for working with the blind and the deaf.  Her name was Anne Sullivan, and she was considered to be a "miracle worker."  You might remember the movie about Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan by that same name.  Anne had remarkable success with "word associations," a technique in which she would place an object in the person's hand, and then tap out syllables or letters on the palm of the other hand, signifying the name of the object.

Anne Sullivan's initial efforts were met with complete failure.  Nothing seemed to work and a defiant young Helen became almost impossible to manage.  Then one day Sullivan poured cold water into Helen Keller's hand and tapped in the word "water."  Suddenly the last word that two-year-old Helen had forgotten became the first one she remembered. Along with it, a flood of memories came pouring through.  By the end of the day she had learned thirty more words!  Before she died, Helen Keller had spoken to presidents and heads of state, written an autobiography and books of poetry, and had literally connected to hundreds of thousands of people all over the world.  All of it began with just a handful of water.

That would surprise a lot of people, but it should not surprise us.  God, who is the original Miracle Worker, does that all the time!  In the Sacrament of Baptism, with words and just a handful of water, God reconnects us to spiritual life, opening the door to heaven itself and a world beyond our wildest imaginations.  In Baptism, Christ connects us to an entire web of relationships and friendships within His Church here on earth, and in the life to come.  Our lives are literally transformed by God in the Sacrament of Baptism, through faith and a handful of water.

The readings for this Laetare Sunday help us to see the remarkable vitality and resilience of the Catholic faith and the sacraments given to us by Christ.  Our First Reading relates the story of David, chosen by God and anointed as king of Israel.  The description found in 1 Samuel is vivid and provocative.  God chooses the most unlikely of instruments and the anointing of this future king takes place before his brothers; they are an impressive lot, though not chosen.  The oil of God's favor falls upon the youngest, the shepherd, "and from that day on, the spirit of the Lord rushed upon David" (1 Samuel 16:13).

The spirit of the Lord rushed upon David.  The Holy Spirit continued to favor David.  God's Spirit was persistent in helping him and guiding him in his life and mission for the people of Israel.  David would be one of the most charismatic and successful leaders in that nation's history . . . and also, at times, one of its greatest disappointments.  David, of course, as we read in Scripture itself, would commit the sin of adultery with Bathsheba, and the sin of murder to cover it up.  He would totally and completely fail God and the people.  And yet, as soon as David is confronted with that failure, he comes back to God with a depth of devotion second to none. The spirit of the Lord rushed upon David.   God never gave up on David, even when he failed.  The Holy Spirit never stopped pursuing David and seeking to draw him ever closer to Himself.  The spirit of the Lord rushed upon David.

Even so, in the Sacrament of Baptism, does God pursue us and persistently press upon us to draw us into a deeper communion with Christ and the Church.  Baptism is one of several sacraments in the Church that can never be repeated.  If we were to commit apostasy, deny the faith or denounce God Himself; if we were to fall into a lifetime of grave and serious sin and live very far from all that God had created us for; we could return to God and to the Church but could never be re-baptized.  The reason is that the waters of grace that we encountered on the day of our baptism are perennial and God's grace is persistent.

We need only to return to the Lord with an open heart and a spirit of repentance and He begins immediately to draw us back into communion with Himself and the Church.  The spirit of the Lord rushed upon us the day we were baptized!  In truth, the Spirit of the Lord rushes upon us here, even now, drawing us ever closer to Christ.  The Holy Spirit rushes upon us when we receive the sacramental grace of forgiveness and absolution in the Sacrament of Penance.  The sacraments of the Church have the power to reanimate our spiritual lives and renew us once again, restoring us to the goodness we were created for. How awesome and powerful are the Sacraments of Baptism and Reconciliation!

Of course, for the baptized Christian, the very presence and person of Christ is Himself the source of great awakening and life-giving renewal. In our Second Reading for this weekend, St. Paul tells us that Jesus Christ has the power to illumine our hearts and produce in us "every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth" (Ephesians 5:9).  Christ is the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never overcome it (John 1:5).  St. Paul relates, in fact, that the light of Christ has the power to wake us up in the spiritual life and raise our souls from the dead:

Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.
—Ephesians 5:14

St. Paul would be the first to tell us that this amazing transformation happens, in a preeminent way, when we listen to the Word of God in Sacred Scripture (see 2 Timothy 3:16).  We also find that same lesson in the history of the Church.  In the years following the Protestant Reformation, many of those who had left the Catholic Church began to claim that they alone had a firm grasp on the meaning of Sacred Scripture.  They claimed fidelity to the word of God while they caricatured Catholics as believing only in the pope and the sacraments. In response to this claim, the Catholic Churches throughout Europe began to construct enormous, wood-carved pulpits as high as twenty feet, ornamented with various sculptures and vibrant biblical scenes. The message being sent was that the word of God, just as much as the sacraments and fidelity to the Vicar of Christ, mattered and made a difference in the lives of the Catholic faithful.

In the Flemish City of Ghent, in St. Bavo’s Cathedral, there is a magnificent wooden pulpit that is as ornate as it is enormous. There is a sculpture of an old man set into the base of that pulpit, with a blanket being pulled off from over his head; he appears almost to be holding onto it desperately as angels blow their trumpets and other heavenly beings lift high the cross of Christ. At the base of that sculpture are the words of St. Paul, which we find in our second reading this morning:

Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.
—Ephesians 5:14

The word of God, like the waters of baptism and the grace of sacramental absolution, has the power to reanimate our spiritual lives and shed the light of Jesus Christ forth into our hearts.  When we hear the word of God proclaimed in the Liturgy, or when we take the time to meditate on the Psalms or some passage from the Bible, we allow the light of Christ to shine into our darkness and illumine the path before us.  Do we take seriously this power of God's word to transform the spiritual life we have received from Him?  Do we allow the Sacred Scriptures to direct and guide our baptismal call to sanctity?  Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give YOU light!

Finally, in our Gospel this weekend, we see in the man born blind the path that Jesus traces out for all the baptized.  He was desperate for healing and cried out in his need.  Suddenly Christ heals him, but in the strangest of ways.  Jesus spat on the ground!  The Son of God "spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes" (John 9:6).  How odd is that?  Then Jesus tells him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam.  Now, certainly Christ does not need to make clay with spittle and rub it into this man's eyes; the man born blind does not need to wash his face in a pool to be healed.  Christ could have simply spoken to this man and it would have been enough.  But we are physical, not simply spiritual.  We need to feel Christ, physically, to hear His voice, to be touched by Him and to experience with our entire being the healing power of the living God.  Christ, who was incarnate of the Virgin Mary for the very purpose of revealing the fullness of redemptive love, institutes the sacraments of the Church to meet this very need we have to experience God physically and spiritually:

In baptism water is poured over our heads and we are cleansed from sin; new life in the Holy Spirit comes to us as the doorway to eternal life is thrown wide open.

In the Eucharist bread and wine become the very body and blood of Christ, nourishing us and strengthening us for the journey of faith and the path of holiness.

In the Sacrament of Reconciliation we hear Jesus' words spoken out loud, setting us free by His generous gift of love on Calvary: "I absolve you of your sins."

And so it is with all the sacraments, beginning with the amazing gift of baptism.  But, of course, the sacraments are not magic.  They require our response if they are to bear fruit sufficient for the life that God desires.  The man born blind was healed, but he had to continue in that healing gift by responding to the God who gave him sight.  He persevered through the doubt and even discouragement of those around him, and eventually came face-to-face with Christ once again.  Jesus invites him to a life of faith, belief in the Son of Man.  When the man goes on to question who this Son of Man is, Christ appeals to the man's senses, seeking to engage him completely in his spiritual and physical nature: "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he" (John 9:37).  John relates, then, how the man believed in Christ, and worshiped Him.

Friends in Christ, we live in a world that has grown increasingly blind and deaf to the things of God.  God is seeking to bring healing to a broken world and sight for the spiritually blind.  Christ has come to bring light to those who dwell in darkness.  But that will only happen when we are willing to live out our baptismal call to holiness and to be the light of Jesus Christ in this world.  God is counting on us, this week, to live the Gospel and to be fully engaged in the sacramental life of the Church.  Christ is seeking to shine His light into the lives of all those who sleep, awakening them with His life-giving word.  How are we called to be the Christians capable of making Him known in a world desperately in need of renewal and new life?  God can transform the entire world with words, faith and a handful of water, but He humbly chooses to do so through His body, the Church.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Transfiguration: Changed and Transformed by Christ

Transfiguration by Raffaello (1483-1520)

(Second Sunday of Lent-Year A; This homily was given on March 11 & 12, 2017 at St. Anthony's Church, Pawtucket, R.I.  See Genesis 12:1-4 and Matthew 17:1-9)

Change is difficult.  All of us can identify with how difficult, and sometimes even overwhelming, change can be.  Whether it be some sudden alteration that catches us completely by surprise, or some new circumstance that we have totally anticipated, changes in life can be a real challenge. 

In the Catholic vision of things, however, change is not only inevitable, but even necessary for our growth in the spiritual life.  This season of Lent is about repentance, having a change in heart and being open to the graces that God pours out into our lives.  Touched by God, we can . . . and should be . . .  open to embracing His plan for our lives in the midst of countless changes.  We can . . . and should be . . . able to recognize the places where we need to change in the way that we live and the way that we love.  Blessed John Henry Newman, 19th Century theologian and Cardinal of the Church, explains it this way:

“In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
—Blessed John Henry Newman, 
The Development of Christian Doctrine, Ch.1, 1.7

Without change we cannot become the men and women God has always called us to be.  “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

I mention that today because the readings for this Second Sunday of Lent are about change.  In our First Reading from the Book of Genesis, Abram (whose very name God will change to Abraham) is called by God to leave his homeland and journey to a place that he has never seen before.  God bids him:

Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.
—Genesis 12:1

It has been said that moving is one of the most stressful and difficult changes we can experience in life; not to move into a new house after one has just received a job promotion, but to move away from what is familiar and to start again in an unknown place.  Abram is asked by God to leave everything, to move to a foreign land.  Those of you in this parish who have moved here from the Azores, or from Cape Verde, know exactly what that kind of change is like.  Yet Abram was obedient to God in the midst of that difficult change.  He responded in faith and allowed God to transform him and make him the father of our faith (Romans 4:16).

In the Gospel for this weekend there is an even more dramatic change.  Jesus Christ goes to the top of Mount Tabor with Peter, James and John.   St. Matthew’s Gospel describes what happened next:

He was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.
—Matthew 17:2

His entire body and His very appearance completely changed before them!  They saw His glory, the glory that He possessed with the Father before time began, and the glory that He would share with the Father after His resurrection from the dead.   But why would Christ choose to appear before them in all His glory?

St. Leo the Great, in a sermon dating back to the 5th Century, explains that Christ was transfigured before Peter, James and John for two reasons.  Firstly, He wanted them to see His glory so that they would not be scandalized by the cross and become discouraged in their apostolic mission.  In other words, these men would witness Jesus Christ rejected by men, betrayed, beaten and crucified.  The Messiah that they loved would be killed.  That would be enough to discourage anyone!  Seeing Christ in glory now, they would remember the way the story ends.  Even in the days following the passion of Christ, these disciples would remember—despite all appearances to the contrary—that Jesus’ end is glory, not shame.  

The second reason for the transfiguration, according to St. Leo the Great, is so that these disciples would know that this is what God is calling them to, as well.  They, too, will experience rejection and persecution for their faith in Christ.  They will also endure humiliating trials and even cruel tortures.  Whatever the disappointments and sorrows of this life, in the end the Christian is called to be with Christ in glory.  That does not make the crosses of this life easy, but it does help us to live as people of hope.  These disciples lived as apostles of hope in a world that was thirsting for God.  They doled out hope like candy before the children of this world, and the world as they knew it would never be the same.  The transfiguration of Christ was a major part of that transformative power at the heart of their apostolic ministry.

To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.   These disciples allowed the glory of God and the power of Christ to change their lives and orient their faith.  Because they responded to God, like Abraham, God was able to use them to transform the culture they lived in.  They were changed by God’s grace and then sent forth into the world to transform the world around them.  This is at the heart of the Sacred Scriptures for us on this Second Sunday of Lent, and it is the great message of the Christian faith: God has the power to change our lives—if we let Him—and then to send us out to be instruments of transformation in the world we live in.

Down through the centuries the Church has always taken up this transformative and life-giving mission.  It is the Church that founded hospitals to tend to the sick and the suffering, the elderly and the infirm.  It is the Church that founded universities and facilitated the education of entire cultures.  The Church has always strived to follow the mandate of Jesus Christ to care for the bodily and spiritual needs of those with whom Christ identifies Himself: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

That work of the Gospel continues even here, even now, in the many ministries and apostolic works that take place in our own diocese. 

In the City of Providence, Emmanuel House continues to serve hundreds of people each month who have no place to live and nothing to eat.  In weather as cold as we have been experiencing, we thank God that there are people serving and providing for the needs of the homeless at Emmanuel House.  

At the same time, we can consider Bishop Tobin’s “Keep the Heat On” campaign.  Each year thousands of dollars are donated to assist people in cities across our state so that they can keep their homes heated and live in safety and dignity.  Can you imagine what it would be like if, after this Mass today, you were to go home in this weather and discover that there was no heat in your house?  Because of the generosity of so many people, there is heat today for many, many warm and grateful people.  

More than that, the Diocese of Providence provides immigration and refugee services for people like Abraham, and like so many of our own families, who have journeyed from a distant and foreign land and are struggling to make a new beginning here in our own communities.  

Catholic Charities provides senior centers that assist the elderly with so many of the vital tasks and services that we all take for granted so often.  In a culture where the rights and even the lives of our elderly citizens are often at risk, the Church responds even now to make a brighter future filled with hope.

Finally, I would like to mention the Seminary of Our Lady of Providence, where I serve as rector.  We have twenty-two young men studying for the priesthood, men who will one day preach the Gospel and celebrate the Sacraments for those who long to see the face of God.  Our very existence as a seminary depends upon the generosity of parishioners like you who give each year to the Catholic Charity Fund Appeal.  Today I would like to express my gratitude for all who have given so generously to provide us with the material and spiritual needs that allow us to form priests for the future of our Church.  

In conclusion, I would like to ask for your generosity in continuing this great work of the Gospel, in its many different facets, throughout the Diocese of Providence.  Perhaps you have a regular amount that you contribute each year, or perhaps you have never before considered the importance of making a contribution to Catholic Charities.  Even the smallest change, and certainly an openness to what God is asking of each of us, could make a major difference in the lives of so many people in the coming year alone.  

As we begin the Catholic Charity Fund Appeal once again this year, may God truly change our hearts and continue to make us instruments of transformation in the world around us.  In our charity towards those in need, in the way that we see each other, and especially in the way that we receive God in our lives, may we be open to the many changes that life brings.  For, in the words of Blessed John Henry Newman, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Christ in the Desert, Christ in Us

(First Sunday of Lent-Year A; This homily was given on March 4 & 5, 2017 at St. Mary's Church, Carolina, R.I. and St. James Chapel, Charlestown, R.I.  See Genesis 2:7-3:7 and Matthew 4:1-11)

One of the great Christian writers and storytellers of this past century is the British author, C.S. Lewis.  Professor at Oxford and Cambridge, his conversion story from Atheism to Anglicanism is alone a remarkable tale.  Lewis is the author of the amazing book series, The Chronicles of Narnia.  That series is known popularly today for the recent films it inspired: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  These fantasy-fiction stories, of course, are all allegories for the Christian faith and tell the great story of Jesus Christ, the apsotles and the Church.

About a decade before the Chronicles of Narnia were written, however, Lewis had already produced another great fiction series, his Space Trilogy.  In these books, Dr. Ransom is the hero who travels to exotic planets and encounters creatures and peoples very different from our world, yet also very similar.  All three books contain the struggle of good versus evil, the battle for virtue and integrity, and the bonds of friendship that are forged in the fires of adversity.

The second book in the Space Trilogy, Perelandra, finds Ransom on the planet by that same name.  He encounters a striking young woman there, and after a while he comes to realize that she and her people are very much like human beings on earth with one great exception: they have never experienced the reality of sin.  In fact, this innocence and purity is more attractive to Ransom than even her external beauty.  Lewis simply refers to her as “the Lady.”  She understands that she is a creature, created by God, and that He loves her.  She, in turn, also desires to love God and follow His commandments.  

Not surprisingly, soon another character shows up on the scene, the “the un-man.”  He is completely fixed on a single goal: to lure the Lady away from God by getting her to break His central commandment.  He wonderfully weaves enticing arguments to convince her that breaking this commandment will open her up to entirely new experiences, a life unlike the one she is living, beyond what she could ever imagine.  Does this sound familiar?

Ransom, of course, is immediately aware of the danger.  He knows well what it means to break God’s commandments; he has already seen what this new “experience” has done to the people on his own planet.  He comes to the Lady’s rescue by arguing against the un-man.  For a while, in fact, he does quite well.  But then, slowly, something begins to happen: Ransom gets tired.  He is, after all, a human being.  He can only sustain the battle for so long.  As he inevitably drifts off to sleep, one final thought occurs to him.  While it is true that he will need rest and recuperation, that might not necessarily be the case for the un-man.

Upon waking, Ransom realizes that this terrible premonition has become a reality.  He quickly jumps into a conversation between the Lady and the un-man, the beginning of which he has never even heard.  He cannot sustain this struggle forever, and realizes desperately that he does not have the stamina to defeat this terrible evil.

In our first reading for this weekend, the story of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis is much less dramatic.  The struggle against temptation and the wiles of the devil end rather quickly.  Adam and Even give in and transgress the commandment of God.  Their sin brings death and sorrow into the human experience and the world is forever changed.  

So much for a good beginning to our Lenten journey!  But the Church places this story before us on this First Sunday of Lent for a reason.  The vital lesson that we learn right away is that we do not—of ourselves—have the power to defeat evil.  Whether it be that we give in suddenly and break the commandments, like Adam and Eve, or whether we fall after a long and noble struggle, like Ransom, in the end we will all lose this battle against the forces of evil.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes this desperate plight, and also signals the tremendous damage that can come through ignorance of the power of evil so often rampant in education, politics, society and the moral life (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #407).  We simply do not have the ability to defeat this malicious enemy.

And God knows that.

That is why God took on our human nature, and became man.  Jesus Christ is the God-man who enters into the desert in the Gospel this weekend, and meets the devil head-on, and face-to-face.  Jesus Christ squares off with Satan in the desert, and He defeats him.  Christ, in His human nature, is victorious in that struggle against temptation and forcefully commands: “Get away, Satan!”—Matthew 4:10

This powerful scene in the Gospel, and the celebration of the Eucharist here, reveals more than Jesus’ victory over temptation.  It anticipates His final victory over sin and death at the cross and His rising from the dead.  The risen Christ will send the Holy Spirit upon the Church and allow us to share in His victory over the devil and over death itself.  That is the great message of this First Sunday of Lent, and it is the great meaning of our Christian faith.  We do not have the power to defeat evil, but in Jesus Christ the victory is ours!  Christ lives in us, and now we can do what was never before possible by His power working in us (Colossians 1:27).  St. Paul says, with great confidence, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).   

I would like to offer three powerful ways that Christ lives in us, for our reflection at the beginning of this Lenten season.  The first is rather obvious: Christ lives in us through the Sacraments that He instituted in the Church for this very purpose.  In Baptism, we are cleansed of original sin and the Holy Spirit is sent into our souls.  Christ lives in us like never before, allowing us to conquer temptation through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Even though we may fall 1,000 times, when we turn back to Him 1,001 times, the victory is His in us!  In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we bring our sins, our faults and our failures before Him and we hear those awesome words from Christ: “I absolve you from your sins.”   In the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, we receive the body and blood, soul and divinity, of Jesus Christ, our Lord and God.  He lives in us, and so we have the power to live completely for God, no matter how weak and feeble we may consider ourselves in the tasks set before us.  Jesus Christ lives in us through the sacraments of the Church.

Secondly, Christ lives in us through the powerful truth He teaches us this weekend in that first refutation of the Devil.  Our Lord, in response to the temptation to turn stones into bread, proclaims:

"It is written: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God."

—Matthew 4:4

We do not and cannot live by the things of this world only.  Having enough to eat is not sufficient.  Receiving an abundance of all that this world has to offer is, in the end, simply not enough.  We need more.  We need God.  Sacred Scripture draws us deeply into that relationship and friendship with God, into that intimacy that allows us to experience Christ living and working in us.  We experience what St. Paul describes as the fruits of the Spirit: Love, Joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).  When we spend some small amount of time each day, reading Sacred Scripture, our lives are refashioned, made new.  We are given the inspiration that helps us to see that we are children of God, co-heirs to eternal life with Him.  The more that we become immersed in Sacred Scripture, the more we will experience Christ living in and through us.

Finally, we experience the power of God and the presence of Christ working in us, not only in the Sacraments of the Church and in the revealed word of God, but also by making Christ known in the world that we live in.  The opposite is true for those who would hoard these riches we receive in Christ.  If we are reticent about sharing our faith and making Christ known in the world we live in, we risk losing even what little we believe we have in our relationship with God.  It is only when we can move out of ourselves, and make Jesus Christ known in the world that we live in, that we truly experience the power of Christ living and moving in us.  

As we enter this Lenten season, we ask Christ for the grace to have true and abundant life in Him.  May we come to see not only the victory of Jesus Christ over Satan in the desert this weekend, but may we also grow to share most fully in that victory of Christ over sin and death itself.  May Jesus Christ continue to strengthen and sanctify us all throughout these days of Lent, as we prepare for the great celebration of Easter and His resurrection from the dead.