Sunday, May 28, 2017

Easter Glory, Fully Alive!

Saint Irenaeus of Lyon (130-202)

(Seventh Sunday of Easter-Year A; This homily was given on May 27 & 28, 2017 at St. Joseph Church in Pascoag, R.I., and St. Patrick Church in Harrisville, R.I.; See 1 Peter 4:13-16 and John 17:1-11)

Our readings for this weekend are particularly focused on the theme of glory.  Six times in the Gospel we just listened to Jesus uses that word.  St. Peter, in our Second Reading, uses it three times.  What do we believe about the glory of God?  St. Paul, in his First Letter to Timothy, describes the God, “who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:16).  That is a good description of the glory of God.  God is impossibly far from us; He is holy and transcendent; His glory could never be seen . . . But then, suddenly, the God who “dwells in unapproachable light” and lives in eternal glory steps into time in Jesus of Nazareth.  The God of glory took on our human nature.  As we profess in the Creed every week, “He was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.”  The glory of God that could never be seen was made visible in the person of Jesus Christ.  The disciples saw Him, touched Him, and heard Him speak (see 1 John 1:1).  

Christ is heard by the disciples, and us, this weekend as He prays to God the Father at the Last Supper.  St. John tells us that Jesus raised His eyes to heaven and prayed:

Father, the hour has come.  Give glory to your son, so that your son may glorify you.
—John 17:1

What “hour”?  The hour of the crucifixion, the hour when the Son of God would offer His life for the salvation of the world.  He continues:

I glorified you on earth by accomplishing the work that you gave me to do.  Now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began.
—John 17:5

I glorified you on earth by accomplishing the work that you gave me to do . . . 

The work that the Father gave Christ to do consists, firstly, in the great miracles that are signs of God’s presence among us.  The Father gives Christ the power to change water into wine; He opens the eyes of the blind; Jesus heals the sick and raises the dead to life.  These miracles revealed the glory of God (see Matthew 15:31).  Moreover, when Jesus proclaims the Good News of the Kingdom of God, He brings glory to the Father.  He announces the Gospel to the poor, revealing to them that they are not forgotten by God; that they are chosen, beloved, sacred, saved.  These are the works entrusted to Christ that bring glory to the Father.

Yet the glory of God is made manifest mostly in the event about to take place in the Gospel, the “hour” when Jesus would ascend to the wood of the cross.  St. John the Evangelist, whose Gospel we have been listening to for several weeks now, teaches that the cross is the greatest expression of the glory of God (see John 12:28).  

How is that possible?  How is the crucifixion of the God-Man, His suffocation and agonizing death, an expression of God’s glory?  The glory of God, in fact, is not revealed in suffering for suffering’s sake.  The glory of God is revealed through love in the midst of suffering.  At the cross Jesus reveals the greatest of all loves.  First and foremost, the glory of God is revealed in the love that Christ has for His Father.  In the obedience of love, the Son surrenders Himself completely to the Father, obedient even to death on the cross.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus kneels in overwhelming agony and prays “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).  That same divine and glorious love of Christ for the Father is revealed in His love for us.  Jesus offers Himself up in love for our salvation, for the forgiveness of our sins, to give us a second chance and a new beginning.  God is glorified in this totally selfless act of generous love that redeems the world.  That love will cost Christ everything, and so He prays: Now glorify me, Father, with you, with the glory that I had with you before the world began (John 17:5).

Now glorify me, Father . . .  The Father glorifies the Son by raising Him from the dead.  This is the great mystery of Easter that we have been celebrating for seven weeks now.  God is glorified in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead.  But then Christ goes on to say something that would have shocked His disciples, and should certainly surprise us. He continues:

“I pray for them . . . I have been glorified in them” (John 17:9-10).  Christ glorified in them?  These disciples of Christ would have known, all too well, their weaknesses and failings.  They would experience failure in a painful way later that night when they abandoned Him at His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.  We ourselves experience the same weaknesses and failures.  How is Christ glorified in these disciples?  How is He glorified in us?  The glory of God is made manifest in us through the awesome gift of the Holy Spirit that we received at Baptism.  As disciples of Christ, baptized into Him, we were cleansed of original sin and given new life in the Holy Spirit.  God dwells in us, lives in us, breathes in us.  Christ is glorified in us because He has given us new, eternal and divine life.  We now share in the very life of God!

One of the most amazing lines in the Catechism of the Catholic Church reveals that God has an innermost secret.  Did you know that?  God has a special secret that He has now chosen to reveal to all who can bear it.  The Catechism explains:

By sending his only Son and the Spirit of love in the fullness of time, God has revealed his innermost secret: God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange.
—CCC, #221

It is not the case, then, that in heaven we will have coffee with God every Tuesday; we will not have an encounter with God at some specific moment of eternal life.  No, in Christ we are now swept up into the eternal exchange of love between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Christ is glorified in us because we are sharers in the divinity of Christ!  Lest we should forget so awesome a reality, the second Eucharistic preface for the Ascension reminds us in the sacred Liturgy today: “For after his resurrection he plainly appeared to all his disciples and was taken up to heaven in their sight that he might make us sharers in his divinity.”  

One of the early Church Fathers, St. Irenaeus of Lyon, is well-known for his beautiful quote, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”  The glory of God is revealed in men and women fully living the Gospel and totally focused on the life of Jesus Christ.  When a husband and wife strive together, year after year and decade after decade in Christian marriage, Christ is glorified (in one of the parishes I celebrated Mass in this weekend, the intention was for a couple celebrating 60 years of marriage; in the second parish, a couple was there celebrating 68 years of married life!).  When we struggle through various trials and difficulties; when we bear agonizing crosses and strive through intense periods of sorrow, and maintain our Catholic faith, God is glorified.  When we experience moments of betrayal and are able to forgive the pain and harm that others have caused us by their words and actions, however difficult that may be, then God is glorified.  “The glory of God is man fully alive.”  What an awesome calling we have been given in Christ!

In conclusion, there is a famous sermon preached by C.S. Lewis back in 1942.  That sermon, given at Oxford University, is called, “The Weight of Glory,” and in it Lewis reflects on this amazing mystery of the glory of God dwelling in us.  He expresses how this remarkable reality “Seems impossible. . . our thoughts can hardly sustain it.  But so it is.”  Nonetheless, there is a certain danger, he notes, that we could become too concerned with our own glory and lose sight of what Christ is asking us to do.  Be that as it may, Lewis continues, it is not possible for us to be too concerned for our neighbor’s glory!  We simply cannot become too concerned for how well the glory of God is being formed and manifested in those around us.  This, he insists, must be our focus if we are to take seriously the Christian life and the high calling of Jesus Christ.

C.S. Lewis goes on to explain that there are no “ordinary people” in the world we live in.  Because we are called to a supernatural destiny, to the life of God Himself, the people we meet each day—whether they are receptive to that call and becoming more like God, or whether they reject the grace of God and become something He has never intended—are far from ordinary:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.  All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.  

This is our privilege and our call in the Christian life, to help one another to reach perfection in the Christian life.  How is God challenging us to recognize His presence and even His glory in the people around us this week?  How can we help our neighbor to grow in the Christian life, or at the very least not be an obstacle to that growth?  Where, this week, will we be able to recognize and even facilitate the glory of God in our midst?  For, in the words of St. Irenaeus of Lyon, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Good Shepherd Sunday: The Center Holds

(Fourth Sunday of Easter-Year A; This homily was given on May 6, 2017 at St. Joseph Church in Pascoag, RI and May 7 at St. Joseph Church in Pascoag, RI, St. Patrick Church in Harrissville, R.I. and Portsmouth Abbey in Portsmouth, R.I.; See John 10:1-10)

A number of years ago I was visiting a priest friend who lives in the region of Italy called Puglia.  If you are looking at a map of Italy, Puglia is located in the heel of the boot.  It is the southern-most region of the country.  At one point, we were able to drive to the coast and visit the Basilica named “St. Mary at the End of the Earth” (Santa Maria de Finibus Terrae).  The basilica commemorates St. Peter’s apostolic journey from Jerusalem to Italy, and his fulfillment of Jesus’ command to bear witness to Him “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  Before he suffered martyrdom in Rome, it is believed that St. Peter went to the “end of the earth” as he knew it, and proclaimed the Good News.

As we were making our way back to the monastery, traveling on a small, country road, we suddenly saw a shepherd in a nearby field. A small flock of about twenty sheep trailed behind him.  I thought, “Here is a shepherd literally guiding his flock at the end of the earth!”  That is, in fact, the very image that we get of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, in the Gospels.  Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd who would go to the end of the earth to find us and bring us home.  He goes to the very end of Himself, offering all that He has on the cross, to bring us into eternal life with God.  He is indeed the Good Shepherd!

But is it possible for us, of our own volition, to go beyond the reach of the Good Shepherd?  Could we possibly find ourselves, by our own misused freedom, in a place where we can no longer hear the voice of the Good Shepherd?  St. John the Evangelist, in the Gospel this weekend, indicates that such a thing is, in fact, possible.  He relates to us Jesus’ teaching about the Good Shepherd:

The sheep hear his voice, as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice.
—John 10:3-4

They follow the voice of the Good Shepherd, Jesus explains, but they will not follow the voice of a stranger.  Then, tragically, St. John relates how the Pharisees were not able to receive this beautiful teaching about the Good Shepherd.  He explains:

Although Jesus used this figure of speech, the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.
—John 10:6

They could not hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. 

They were unable to realize what Jesus was saying to them, because they had grown accustomed to not listening to Him, not hearing Him. 

Time and again, in the synagogue and in the Temple, they had determined not to listen to what Jesus had to say.  Now that He was trying to teach them about Himself, to call them, they “did not realize what he was trying to tell them.”

There is every indication that, in the world we live in, many are not hearing the Good Shepherd.  In the laws that are passed, which violate the gift of human life for the vulnerable, the sick and the elderly, the unborn, the voice of the Good Shepherd is not being listened to.  In a culture where crimes are committed and live-streamed on Facebook, the voice of the Good Shepherd is not being listened to.  Many baptized Christians today, people that we know and love, are growing more and more accustomed to not hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd.

In the late 18th century, European civilization and culture began to grow in leaps and bounds during the period known as the Enlightenment.  Scientific advancements were opening up new avenues of knowledge; discoveries were being made that went beyond what could have been imagined centuries before.  Many at that time began to speculate how poverty, crime and other social ills could be eliminated completely.  An “Age of Reason,” would finally replace an age of religion and superstition, where such things as faith in God were useless, at best.  But then something unexpected happened.  The knowledge that was aimed at progress was used to coordinate and facilitate the First World War.  Progress was replaced by destruction of human life on a scale unprecedented, and the Enlightenment project gave way to a broken world.

In 1920, immediately after World War I, Ireland’s William Butler Yeats wrote his famous poem “The Second Coming.”  It is a dark and ominous poem that begins:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold . . .

Yeats communicated the desperate plight of a culture come loose from its moorings.  Under the guise of freedom, they had drifted so far from the “falconer” that they were unable to come back.  They could no longer hear the call to come home.

Things fall apart . . . the center cannot hold . . .
There was an article in the Wall Street Journal last August that focused on the intense current preoccupation with Yeats’ poem.  It explained that, in the first 7 months of 2016, “The Second Coming” had been cited by journalists and commentators more times than in the 30 years preceding it!  Referring to world terrorism, Brexit, and the U.S. elections, the message was one of apocalyptic despair:  Things are falling apart; the center cannot hold; we have drifted too far away to bring things back together.

It is crucial for us, as people of faith, to recognize that this is NOT the message of Jesus Christ in the Gospel this weekend! 

On the contrary, Jesus Christ cries out to us as the Good Shepherd, with every indication that we can, in fact, hear Him.  We can listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd, calling out to us with a message of hope, a message of peace, and the promise of redemption.  As St. Paul proclaims, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).

Jesus Christ promises us this weekend that “Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture . . . I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10: 9-10).  We thank God that there are several ways our faith teaches us to listen to that voice of the Good Shepherd. 

Firstly, we can hear the voice of the Good Shepherd when He calls out to us in the sacramental life of the Church.  The moment we are baptized, we enter into the very life of Jesus Christ.  The Holy Spirit lives and moves in us, calling out to our hearts that we belong to God.  On the altar, the Good Shepherd comes to us, seeking us out, to give Himself to us in His body and blood.  The Eucharist strengthens us to live the Christian life and to consistently hear the voice of God in a world replete with distractions.  The sacraments allow us to tune in to the voice of Jesus Christ.  Can we hear Him?

Secondly, we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd when we listen to the reading of Sacred Scripture in the Mass.  The Church teaches us that, when the word of God is read in the Sacred Liturgy, it is Jesus Christ that speaks to us.  We listen to the readings and Christ speaks to our hearts.  We hear the words of Psalm 23 this weekend, and it is the Good Shepherd that says to us, “I am your shepherd, there is nothing you shall want; I make you to lie down in green pastures, I lead you beside the still waters; I restore your soul.”  Are we listening to Him when He speaks to us in the Mass?

And finally, we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd when we take the time, each day, to be alone and silent before Him.  We take some amount of set time each day to be still with God, to listen to Him and to communicate our thoughts, desires, fears, hopes and joys.  We pray.  God is so eager to speak to us, to encourage and to console us, if only we will open our hearts, trust and believe.  Faith is a gift from God, no doubt; but it is also a response to the one who is calling out to us.  Can we hear that voice, that call of the Good Shepherd?

Because it is absolutely true that God would seek us out anywhere, and bring us home with great love.  If we were to fall away from God and drift thousands of miles away, He would seek us out and find us!  He most certainly is the Good Shepherd that goes to the end of the earth to save us. 

But He would much rather speak to us here.  Now. 

Today, and all throughout this coming week, we ask for the grace to listen well to the voice of Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd, who constantly calls us to new and abundant life.