Sunday, November 26, 2017

Unbound and Unbinding

Portal of Judgment, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris

(Solemnity of Christ the King-Year A; This homily was given on November 26, 2017 at St. Paul Church in Cranston, R.I.; See Matthew 25:31-46)

There is a church in the north of Belgium, in the enchanting town of Bruges, named the Basilica of the Holy Blood.  It purports to have a vial of the blood of Jesus Christ, obtained from a cloth used by Joseph of Arimathea when the body of Christ was being prepared for burial.   The citizens of Bruges organize a procession with the Holy Blood every year, and the basilica itself wonderfully celebrates the passion of Jesus Christ.  
In the Lower Basilica, there is a unique statue of Christ in the moments leading up to the crucifixion.  Jesus is seated, with a crown not of gold but of thorns on His head, and His hands are bound with a thick rope.  His face, however, is completely serene and regal. That statue clearly communicates what we believe about the passion.  Christ is not bound out of weakness, but in great strength He willingly surrenders Himself into the hands of men.  His being bound is the act of love that sets us free, His death and resurrection is what gives us forgiveness and eternal life.  Isaiah the Prophet, in his anticipation of Christ as the suffering servant, explains it beautifully:

But he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity.  He bore the punishment that makes us whole, by his wounds we were healed.
—Isaiah 53:5

Because Jesus Christ was bound, we were set free.

In his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (which was given exactly 4 years ago on the Feast of Christ the King), Pope Francis relates how the Holy Spirit is still at work in the lives of all people, helping to unbind them from the complications and complexities of daily life.  He explains how we participate in that work of unbinding those around us through our cooperation with God in evangelization:

“To believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in everyone means realizing that he seeks to penetrate every human situation and all social bonds: ‘The Holy Spirit can be said to possess an infinite creativity, proper to the divine mind, which knows how to loosen the knots of human affairs, even the most complex and inscrutable’.  Evangelization is meant to cooperate with this liberating work of the Spirit.”
—Evangelii Gaudium, # 178

We encounter Christ, who gives us true freedom and new life.  We are then motivated to evangelize, allowing the Holy Spirit to “loosen the knots” of others.  This is the great legacy of the Church, and we will be judged as to how well or how poorly we cooperate in this magnificent work.  The Gospel this weekend, St. Matthew’s description of the Last Judgment, reminds us that the ones who are bound by poverty, thirst, hunger, loneliness, and whatever social bonds that oppress them, are ultimately Christ in a distressing disguise (to use a favorite phrase of St. Mother Theresa of Calcutta).  

The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris has a captivating depiction of this scene from St. Matthew’s Gospel.  The central doorway, containing the “Portal of the Last Judgement,” shows Christ the King, seated on His royal throne.  Below Him is St. Michael the Archangel, weighing the lives of all in the balance.  Those who have responded well to Christ and have been judged worthy of eternal life are on Christ’s right, ready to join the saints and angels forever.  Those found wanting, however, are lined up on His left.  They are being corralled by two demons, one on each end of the file, holding a rope that guides the condemned to their demise.  The rope, however, is not tied to any one of them.  It rests by their side, as if they could simply step over it, or slip under the rope at any minute and return to Jesus Christ.  

The point the sculptor wanted to make is that these souls were perfectly free all throughout their lives to answer the call of God.  They were always free to recognize Him in need, and do something to respond to their neighbor, but they freely chose not to do so.  To be condemned and separated from Christ forever is not a punishment over which we have no control; it is an affirmation of our own freedom, the tragic choice of not recognizing and responding to the offer of life and free gift of Jesus Christ.  

Pope Francis explains Matthew’s Last Judgment, and similar passages, by stating:

“What these passages make clear is the absolute priority of ‘going forth from ourselves towards our brothers and sisters’ as one of the two great commandments which ground every moral norm and as the clearest sign for discerning spiritual growth in response to God’s completely free gift.”
—Evangelii Gaudium, # 179

God freely choses to forgive our sins and welcomes us into friendship with Himself.  He was bound and suffered death that we might be set free and enter eternal life.  But, our Holy Father reminds us, there is an “absolute priority” for us, in having received so great a gift, to reach out to those around us in the name of Jesus Christ.   

From the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has called the Church to recognize and reach out to those “on the peripheries,” those who find themselves on the outside.  As he describes in Evangelii Gaudium, “Our faith in Christ, who became poor, and was always close to the poor and the outcast, is the basis of our concern for the integral development of society’s most neglected members” (Evangelii Gaudium, # 186).   We are called to identify and assist those on the peripheries, and according to our fidelity in this regard, we will be judged.

In conclusion, we can consider not only others on the periphery, but can ask if, perhaps, we ourselves sometimes become separated from Christ and His Church.  Do we ever place ourselves on the periphery by the choices that we make?  It can happen that, through the misuse of our own freedom, we choose to reject the sanctifying grace of God.   Our faith clearly teaches that serious or grave sin, chosen freely and with understanding, could separate us from God and cause us to lose the sanctifying grace that He has given us.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:

If [mortal sin] is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back.
—CCC, # 1861 

Therefore, with one act of faith and an open heart in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, in a moment, we can be completely reconciled to God!  What a remarkable gift, to simply come before God in the sacrament He instituted and confess to the priest, “Bless me, father, for I have sinned, it has been 10 years since my last confession…” or “it has been 2 weeks since my last confession…” or whatever amount of time … “and I am sorry for my sins…”  God grants us forgiveness, sanctifying grace, the restoration of His life within us, and then we are totally free to begin again that great work of unbinding those around us and being effective evangelists for Jesus Christ.

Wherever we find ourselves this weekend, as we near the end of the Liturgical Year and prepare for the coming of Christ into our lives, we ask for the openness to receive, and respond well to, the amazing grace of God.  May we spend our entire lives immersed in that grace, and at the end of this life, may we hear those beautiful words of Christ from our Gospel this morning:

Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
—Matthew 25:34

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Dinner with a Perfect Savior

The Last Supper by Juan de Juanes (1510-1579)

(Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on November 19, 2017 at the Chapel of St. John in Meriden, CT.; See Matthew 25:14-30)

We are drawing close the end of the Liturgical Year, those last few weeks before we begin a new season in Advent.  Our readings, and particularly the Gospels, have been focused on the second coming of Christ.  We have heard about the coming of the Bridegroom, about wedding banquets, people entering and others being locked outside.  Traditionally, this is the time of the year when the Church meditates on the four “last things”: death, judgment, heaven and hell. Typically, those are not things that come up at the average dinner among friends . . .

Unless, of course, you live in Belgium!  That is because the Dutch word for requesting “the bill” is nothing short of apocalyptic; the word for settling accounts is: De Rekening! Yes, you have enjoyed your meal, there has been some good wine, and maybe a little dessert, but now comes . . . The Reckoning!

That word, in fact, comes up in our Gospel this morning.  Jesus, in the parable of the talents, tells us about the three servants entrusted with their master’s property.  He then says:

After a long time the master of those servants came back and settled accounts with them.
—Matthew 25:19
That phrase, settled accounts with them,” in the Dutch Bible, reads “en hield rekening met hen.”  There was a “Reckoning.”  He gave them the bill!  But there is every indication in our Gospel this morning that an encounter with Christ, now and at the judgment, need not be frightening.  In fact, it could be something as enjoyable and intimate as dinner with a friend.

When I was in my first parish assignment, one of the parishioners shared a book with me that I cautiously agreed to read.   The title was, “Dinner with a Perfect Stranger,” by David Gregory, and it was a story about a cynical, skeptical businessman who receives a dinner invitation from Jesus.  Truth be told, I was skeptical about reading the book!  It sounded kind of hokey.   In fact, though, it was really well done.  At first the main character is suspicious and convinced that his friends have set him up for this mysterious encounter.  As the story continues, he discovers that this stranger knows a lot more about his life that anyone possibly could, and before long the meal becomes much more personal and revealing than he ever expected.

If we look at the parable of the talents this morning, they reveal to us three ways that an encounter with Jesus Christ at the final judgment could be as intimate as dinner with a friend who loves us.
Firstly, we discover in the parable that the Master knows these servants intimately.  Jesus says that the Master:

Called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them.  To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one—to each according to his ability.
Matthew 25:14-15  

To each according to his ability.  This is a Master who knows his servants well.   He knows their strengths and weaknesses, what they can do and what they can’t.  He gives them exactly what they need and exactly what they can handle, nothing more and nothing less.  Even so with us; God knows and loves us intimately.  St. Augustine says that God is intimior intimo meo—that He is closer, more intimate to me, than I am to myself (Book 3, Chapter 6 of The Confessions).  However deeply we known and understand our hopes, our desires, our fears, and the motivations in our lives, God knows and understands those things much more deeply.  He knows and loves us far more than we could ever think or even imagine (see Ephesians 3:20).   

Secondly, the parable of the talents reveals God’s tremendous trust in giving us the gifts of life and faith.  The Master in the parable does not micromanage the servants or give them a detailed list of how they should invest those talents.  He allows them to operate freely and with great initiative.  In fact, that becomes the undoing of the third servant, who will not use his freedom and instead buries his talent in the ground.  God wants us to be free!  He wants us to live our lives for Him and to take chances and risks for love and for relationships that will bring an increase of faith and virtue into this world.  Are we doing that?  Are we free?  Are we totally surrendered to Jesus Christ so that He can guide us in our vocation to the fruitfulness of virtue and freedom that has transformed souls and civilizations for centuries?

Finally, this weekend, we not only find in Jesus an intimate friend and one who willingly trusts us with the gifts of life and faith, but also a God who has no ulterior motives when He calls us to follow Him.  Those servants who responded with fidelity to what their Master entrusted to them discover that he has only one goal in mind: Unending joy!

Well done, my good and faithful servant.  Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities.  Come, share your master's joy.
—Matthew 25:21&23

The reason why he entrusted the talents to them in the first place, the driving force behind his incredible trust in these servants, was so that—in the end—they might share in their master’s joy.  That is all God wants for us; he does not have any other plan; there is no ulterior motive.  God simply gives us life and faith and He trusts us to use those gifts, to live fully and totally according to His will so that we can become more and more like Him here on this earth and live forever with Him in the world to come; simply to share the Master’s joy.  What a remarkable friend, indeed!

But perhaps, you might say, the dinner analogy seems to go a little too far.  Do we really think that encountering God in this life and at the final judgment could be like an intimate dinner with a friend?  We can if we understand what we are doing here this morning, and what Christ instituted on the night before He died.

Jesus Christ freely gives His life for our salvation, offering His body and blood on the altar of the cross so that we can be forgiven and enter eternal life.  But on the night before He died, he chose to make that offering and sacrifice an everlasting memorial at the Last Supper, a meal that He greatly longed to celebrate with His disciples (Luke 22:15).  At that meal, He gave us Himself in His body and blood, so that we could encounter Him here, and down through the centuries, even until the end of time.  Here in the Eucharist, Christ knows us intimately.  He inspires us and motivates us to trust in Him and to live generously for the building up of His kingdom.  Ultimately, though, He draws us—even here, even now—into His joy, giving us His very life, so that we may enter into that joy for all eternity.

The God who comes to us here is the same God who we will stand before at the end of our lives and offer an account, a “reckoning.”  To stand before God in judgment is an awesome and overwhelming reality.  We strive daily to live our lives in such a way as to be found worthy and living in His sanctifying grace when that day arrives.  But all throughout this life we are invited to this amazing dinner with a perfect Savior, this encounter with Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist.   Here in this place God gives us all we need to respond well and live generously in this world, so that we may one day share forever in our Master’s joy.