Sunday, November 12, 2017

Being Prepared

Michelangelo's Pieta or "The Pity"
Do we have our priorities straight? First things first! Our relationships.

In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus tells a story about preparing to meet God in the mystery of death. The “oil” for lamps can be understood as our good works; the “absence of oil” the lack of good works. Seize every opportunity to do good now. Why? We don’t know the day or hour of our death.
The news everyday underscores this. People may suddenly die: in natural disasters, auto crashes or mass shootings. Life can be short.

“Be prepared” is not simply a Scout motto. It’s an everyday Christian motto. As people of faith, we know that the God who gave us life will transform our earthly self into a new indescribable heavenly self. That is the Easter message.

How do we prepare to meet God? Value each day as a gift from God and live today as best we can. Make every day worth living.

Emerging medical technologies may soon be able to lengthen our years into the hundreds. But lifespan is of little value unless it is a life of quality. Interestingly a surgeon, Atul Gawande, wrote a bestseller titled “Being Mortal.” Medical care is always evolving. Gawande asks, why submit the dying to the full panoply of procedures to lengthen a life at the expense of a quality life. The question for Gawande becomes when to “let go,” when to stop treatments that likely don’t work. After all, birth and death are integral to the cycle of life.

St. Paul did not see prolonging this life as a major goal; he wrote to the Philippians,  “for to me, life is Christ, and death is gain.”We were created to live in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit. Without that relationship we will feel empty. People try to fill their emptiness with different things. For St. Paul, a life worth living is knowing Christ “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom.” (Colossians 2:2–3).

God works through us in ways we may not expect, even in the midst of our struggles. When St. Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, he was imprisoned in very bad conditions, awaiting trial and possible execution. Yet, he believed that God could work in him even then and there. Paul’s desire was for Christ to “be magnified in his body, whether by life or by death.” (Phil 1:20)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian who was executed for standing up against Nazism, put it well: “Your life as a Christian should make non-believers question their disbelief in God.”

We are called to be missionary disciples, to do the right thing, to make life worth living. Yes, many times in life, the first question we have to ask is, “What is the right thing to do?” And then just do it, to prepare for eternal life.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Breath of God in the Bible

The Bible Enthroned in a Chapel
In Sunday's liturgy of the word, the apostle Paul reminds the Thessalonians that God speaks to them in the Bible. Yes, God speaks to us especially through the Bible, a privileged form of conversation between God and us, a two-way conversation. We should be ever attentive to the word of God, especially in the liturgy. God authored the Bible in the sense that the Bible includes what God wants us to know about God, the universe and ourselves.

But the human authors of the Bible were real authors. They employed the language, images, literary genres, and worldviews they knew to communicate religious truths, not scientific truths. Moreover, the Bible is not one book but a library of many: prose and poetry, fiction and history, myths and legends, historical narratives and short stories, genealogies and sermons, and so on. In fact, the Bible was written over 1500 years by at least 40 authors. They are not always easily understandable. That why we have Bible study.

St. Paul describes all scripture as “inspired by God.” (2 Tim 3:16) Not just inspired the way artists, poets, composers and musical performers do. It actually has God’s breath, his Spirit. Yes, through the Bible, God speaks to us.

The Bible ultimately is about Jesus. Paul informed Timothy that the sacred scriptures are “capable of giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim 3:.15)

Jesus loves us unconditionally, and asks that we not only hear God's word but put it into practice. Our spiritual appetite can only be satisfied in a relationship with God. That's what Jesus made a reality through his death and resurrection: a relationship with God.

Our global Catholic Church is a biblical community of disciples in the sense that it acknowledges and proclaims the bible as the word of God in human form. In particular, the scriptures identify Jesus as the unique definitive revelation of God to us.

In this sense, there will be no new revelation. However, the Church universal as a community of disciples is the instrument of the Spirit who guides us along the journey to eternal life in the light of new problems in new generations and in new cultures.

I conclude with a story about Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the great 19th century Russian novelist.  Caught up in a movement for political and social reform, he and comrades were condemned to be executed. As the prison guards raised their muskets and took aim at the lineup, a white flag was raised to announce that the Tsar had commuted their sentence to life imprisonment in Siberia.

While in prison, Dostoyevsky read the New Testament from cover to cover and learned much of it by heart. He wrote, “I believe that there is no one...else like Jesus.” Yes, through the Bible, Dostoyevsky encountered the living Christ.  May we also encounter the living Christ in the word of God.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Loving God and Each Other

"I am the vine; you are the branches."  (John 15)
In the Gospel according to Matthew, a clever lawyer tries to stump Jesus: Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law? A tricky question, because the law had 613 do’s and don’ts. Jesus answers simply by reciting the daily Jewish prayer, the Shema: You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. But then Jesus startles the Pharisees by adding love of neighbor. We love God to the extent we love our fellow human beings.

Yes, behind “appearances” people reflect the image of God. To be a disciple of Jesus is, first of all, to see the likeness of God in our fellow human beings. Mt. 25 connects love of God with love of our neighbor: “when I was hungry, when I was thirsty” you did something. We can’t say we love God and yet neglect our fellow human beings. All of us are called to make a difference for the better.

You may remember the play and film “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” In younger days, wrote the author of Genesis, Joseph went through betrayal by his jealous brothers and then slavery in Egypt. Yet in all these misfortunes, Joseph was ever faithful to God, trusting in God's unconditional love for  him. Soon the powerless slave became the powerful administrator in the court of the pharaoh of Egypt.  He made Joseph master of his household, ruler over all he possessed.

Not only did Joseph remain faithful to God, but he also forgave his brothers for what they did to him. Ultimately, Joseph's faithfulness to God led to a life of great fruitfulness.

Our life too can be immensely fruitful, because the Spirit of God lives within us. We are “the temple of the living God,” writes Paul. (2 Cor 6:16) Just as God dwelt in the Jerusalem temple, so now he dwells in us by his Spirit. The Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22–23).

God wants us to be a branch in his vine: producing fruit. The Gospel according to John explains Jesus is “the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower...Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remain on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches.” (John 15: 1-5).

I close with a paraphrase of one of my favorite quotes: We shall pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that we can do or any kindness that we can show to any human being, let us do it now, let's not defer or neglect it for we shall not pass this way again.

With this advice embedded into us, our love of God will shine through our love of our fellow human beings.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Practicing the Presence of God

Dali's "Sacrament of the Last Supper"
In the Gospel according to Matthew, the Jews had to pay taxes to their oppressors and even worse, they had to use coinage which carried the image of the reigning Roman emperor and ascribed divine status to him—blasphemy for the Jews. 

The opponents of Jesus pose a tricky question: should we pay the tax or not? If Jesus says, “Yes, pay the tax,” he'll anger his Jewish followers; if he says, “No, don't pay,” he'll be considered a rebel and liable to death for treason. But Jesus recognizes his opponents as hypocrites. And so, Jesus answers in a carefully nuanced fashion: If you benefit from Caesar, you ought to pay for these benefits. However, you ought to give to God what is his by right. The hypocrites knew what Jesus meant: they were to give themselves to God since they were made in God's image. We are creatures born to be in relationship with our creator forever.

An Asian Indian proverb says that every one of us is a house with four rooms: a physical room, a mental room, an emotional room, and a spiritual room. There’s even an interesting memoir titled “A House with Four Rooms.” Imagine this scenario.  One room is a fully-equipped kitchen. Another room is a library with the best books. A third room is a studio for painting, pottery, sculpting, carpentry. The fourth room is a high-tech room.

Imagine this scenario too.We might become so interested in one room that it becomes the only room we live in: so immersed in cooking that we never discover the “great books”; so plugged into high-tech toys that we never enjoy a dinner; or so engrossed in our work that we don’t really connect with the people closest to us.

God asks us to open every window and door in this so-called house that is our life, to allow God’s presence to “air out” our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual rooms. We're not fully alive until the presence of God becomes part and parcel of every dimension of our lives.

Practice the presence of God. And where better to develop this practice than in the liturgy. We experience Christ’s presence together in the songs we sing, the prayers we pray, in the word of God. Foremost, Christ reveals his presence to us sacramentally in his body and blood. And then Christ offers himself to us as spiritual nourishment in communion which links us to the mystical body of Christ dwelling within the church universal.

How often do you hear, “How was your day?” I conclude with a story about two parents tucking children into bed, and asking that question in a different way, “Where did you meet God today?” And the children told their parents, one by one: a teacher helped me; I held the door for someone; I saw a garden with lots of flowers in it. And the parents told them where they met God too. The stuff of that day became the substance of that family’s prayers.

May we be ever more open to God’s presence in all areas of our life each day.