Sunday, April 23, 2017

God at the Center

Caravaggio's Doubting Thomas
In the Gospel according to John, we have a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus in a Jerusalem house.  The risen Christ conferred upon the excited disciples the power and energy of the Spirit so they and their successors could continue the saving ministry of Jesus in Jerusalem and beyond.

The skeptical or doubting Thomas wasn’t there.  Thomas may have been like some people today who question whether there's a God.  Perhaps they should recall Blaise Pascal’s wager: Not believing in God is bad for one's eternal soul if God does exist; believing in God is of no consequence if God does not exist; therefore it is in one's interest to believe in God.

Thomas seems to have been a realist.  Where's the evidence?, he probably asked.

The disciples described the appearance of the risen Christ in detail.  Maybe Thomas lacked faith in the disciples.  Faith in people can be tough today as it was then.  We have to recapture the importance of truth in our lives.  Jesus Christ is the foundation.   He is the way, the truth and the life.

The risen Christ in his second visit restored Thomas' faith, prompting the cry: “My Lord and My God.”  Thomas' prayer could have inspired a prayer in the musical Godspell: “Lord, I pray: to see you more clearly, love you more dearly, follow you more nearly.”

I like to think that Thomas, like the other disciples, strove to be a man of integrity. Integrity is saying what we think and doing what we say, practicing what we preach.  It's all about our moral character.

I read in the book “The Jesus Lifestyle” that James Cameron, director of the movie “Titanic,” described the Titanic as a metaphor for life.  The Titanic was declared unsinkable because it was constructed using compartmental technology.  Tragically, the Titanic sank in April,1912.  When the wreck was later found, they discovered damage to one compartment affected all the rest.

Many people make the “Titanic mistake” trying to confine God to a segment of our lives. For example, my Church life where God is involved; my work life where God can’t be involved; my social life where I don't want God involved.

Perhaps we should think of life as like a circle: God at the center, affecting everything.  That is what I would call a life of integrity, a life not divided.

Honesty, truthfulness and reliability create integrity.   Love, or always wishing the other person good, no matter how much they may have mistreated us, is the context for integrity.

Second, did you know that twelve out of Jesus' thirty-eight parables are about money or possessions. The way we use our financial resources can have eternal consequences.  Think of Matthew 25: “When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat....”  We positively have to do good.

Jesus challenges us not to love money and use people; rather, love people and use money.  Focus on God and the things of God. Yes, think of life as a circle: God at the center.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

A New Dawn: Jesus Is Alive

Happy Easter! Felices Pascuas! Joyeuses Paques! Buona Pasqua! Frohe Ostern!

Fra Angelico's Resurrection
Easter symbolizes life. A popular Easter symbol is the egg.  Just as the chick breaks out of the egg at birth, so too we believe that, in the mystery of death, we will break out of this earthly “skin” so to speak, into a new life.  Because Jesus, once crucified and dead, is alive.  His resurrection is the pledge of our own.

Easter is about beginning again.  Who among us is content with who we are?  Who does not want to be more loving, more generous, more compassionate, more helpful?  Let this be the time to rediscover God's extraordinary grace transforming our ordinary, everyday lives into the likeness of God.

In the word of God, Peter proclaims the good news, all that God has done for us through Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus was crucified but was lifted up to his heavenly Father so that He could draw all of us to himself.  He is indeed, Peter shouts, a God of mercy and forgiveness. And that’s why Pope Francis emphasizes that the Church is a field hospital, here to heal wounds.

In the Gospel according to John, we hear the story of the resurrection of Jesus. Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb, finds it empty, summons Peter and John.  The disciples discover that Jesus is alive.  He has passed through the mystery of death into a new, transfigured heavenly reality.  This heavenly reality is ours as well. That is the Easter message!

Jesus said: I live and because I live, we also live.  How?  Born in the flesh, we are reborn in the spirit. In the rite of baptism, the Spirit of God is poured out upon us, and a new life is ours.  The triune God lives within us and we live within the triune God.

As we grow in faith, the bishop anoints our forehead with oil in the sign of the cross—and in that gesture God confirms and pours out more fully the gifts of the Spirit so that we might show forth the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

In this Eucharist, the living Christ truly presences himself to us sacramentally and mystically in the signs of bread and wine and becomes one with us in communion so we can continue his saving ministry.  And if we should stumble on our journey, the Living Christ lifts us up in the Rite of Penance where we celebrate God’s mercy.

Yes, through sacramental encounters with God, we experience the living Christ. In the exchange of marriage vows.  In the anointing of the sick.  The sacraments are signs of God’s care as we journey to our heavenly dwelling place.

Eternal life in relationship with God and one another: that is our ultimate purpose.

Easter is about getting our priorities straight.  How can we be more loving, more generous, more compassionate, more helpful?  Easter is a new dawn, a fresh start.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Paradox: Holy Week

The Resurrection of Jesus by Rubens
Our global Catholic community on Ash Wednesday invited us to re-treat ourselves to those age-old exercises of prayer ("heart to heart" conversation with God), fasting (doing without, e. g., negative attitudes and behaviors that can jeopardize our relationship with God and one another) and almsgiving (generously sharing what we have). I hope these exercises in the Lenten season have re-invigorated us, deepened our faith in God.

Today, Palm Sunday, we begin Holy Week, the chief week of the Liturgical Year.  We focus upon the Paschal mystery (the dying/rising of Jesus Christ).  We contemplate the journey from this earthly life through the mystery of death into a transfigured heavenly life.

The word “paschal” derives from the Hebrew “pesach” or “passing” of the angel of death over the homes of the Hebrews in ancient Egypt centuries ago. In a larger sense, the passover refers to the exodus or liberation of the Hebrews from their oppressors.

I came across a story that highlights for me the significance of Holy Week.  A high school teacher in a Iowa farm community asked each of her students to take a potato for every person the student had refused to forgive or had treated badly.  They were to write the name of the person on the potato and put it in the plastic bag.  The teacher then told the students to carry the potatoes all day and the next.

This taught a valuable lesson about the time and energy we waste lugging around our anger and guilt.  Too often, we think of forgiveness as a gift to another person: but it is clearly a gift to ourselves, as well.  We have to throw away our anger and our guilt.

Forgiveness and reconciliation and peace are what Holy Week is all about.

On Palm Sunday, we reflect upon a paradox: the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, and the Gospel proclamation of the passion and death of Jesus.  In the tragedy of Good Friday there is the triumph of Easter; in and through the death of Jesus there is resurrection.

Thursday-Friday-Saturday is known as the triduum or “three days.”

Thursday, we commemorate the Lord’s Supper: there is the washing of feet (a symbol of service); and a sacrificial meal where Jesus gives himself to us in the signs of bread and wine.  The words of Jesus capture the significance: “This is my body; this is my blood.”  On Good Friday, we meditate upon his passion and death.  At the Easter vigil, we will reflect upon the passage of Jesus from this earthly life through death into a transfigured heavenly life; the resurrection of Jesus is a pledge of our own liberation.

Easter proclaims that Jesus is risen; alive among us, especially in the sacramental life.  I pray that your participation in these services will inspire you to seek ever more enthusiastically the God who became flesh in Jesus, who opened up to us a transfigured life beyond earthly life, and who by the power of the Spirit is alive among us.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Life and Grief

Tanner's Resurrection of Lazarus
In the lobby of a chapel at Oxford University, there’s a life-size statue of Lazarus bound from head to foot.  Jesus, you remember, cried out: “untie him and let him go.”  Every church should be about untying people from the many things that hold them back from a relationship with God.  A powerful prayer whenever we enter a church: untie me from attitudes and behaviors that prevent me from becoming my true self: the likeness of God.

In the Gospel according to John, Jesus gave Lazarus a “second chance.”  We have been given many “second chances,” so to speak.  But are we doing anything differently in light of this?

Let’s reflect on life and grieving: life for Lazarus; and initial grief of his sisters, Martha and Mary..

Nobel Prize winning playwright Eugene O'Neill wrote "Lazarus Laughed."  In the play people gathered at Lazarus' home. Lazarus' father proposes a toast: "To my son, Lazarus, whom a blessed miracle has brought back from death."  Lazarus interrupts, "No! There is no death." And the folks echo as a question: "There's no death?"  And Lazarus laughs, and says, happily, "There is only life. I heard the heart of Jesus laughing in my own heart. 'There is only eternal life,' it said. 'Laugh, laugh, with me. Fear is no more.' "

Yes, there's eternal life.  But how reconcile life with grief.

C.S. Lewis wrote a book titled “A Grief Observed,” exploring the process of grieving in the dying and death of his wife.  Lewis detailed his thoughts about life without his wife, and his anger and bewilderment at God.  He felt a distance from God, a deadening silence, what the 16th century Carmelite John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul.”

Lewis asked, is this what God is really like. But gradually some of the clouds of grief began to lift with the passage of time.  Anger and doubt gave way to acceptance and peace and faith. It was like the breaking through of the sun after an overcast morning.

In some ways, Lewis wrote, his youthful faith was like a “house of cards” that had to be shattered so that God could fashion an adult faith.

Lewis came to realize it's healthy to think about mortality from time to time.  It puts things in perspective.  Life is a pilgrimage, a journey, a passage. We have to let go in order to go forward, and to let go is to die a little.  But we let go, and eventually we let go of our earthly life so that we can become transfigured, like Jesus Christ before us, into a new kind of spiritual embodiment.

Back to Jesus and Lazarus and ourselves.  We might shout to Jesus: untie me from the attitudes and behaviors that prevent me from becoming my true self: the likeness of God.

Life and death.  We are forever changing and everything around us is changing.  But change involves loss, loss involves grief, grief involves pain.  And yet our faith proclaims that life leaps out of death; in the agony of our Good Fridays is the ecstasy of Easter.