Sunday, November 20, 2022

Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

 Next Thursday, across this great land, families and friends will gather to celebrate Thanksgiving. It’s a special day to be grateful to God for the blessings of our lives. Happy Thanksgiving!

Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, to whom we pledge our ultimate allegiance, Jesus who is the image of the invisible God, the crucified and risen Christ, through whom we have a relationship with God, the Good Shepherd who leads us to eternal life.

I remember reading the response of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. when he was asked the secret of his success. The judge responded, “I discovered early on I was not God.” 

Imagine if people throughout history learned that. Emperors thought they could run a universe. Medieval kings and queens boasted their divine right to do what they wanted. 

In the aftermath of World War I, Pope Pius XI was convinced that dictators were emerging who thought they were gods and would deny people's basic human rights. So, Pius XI wanted to point people to the one true God. That’s how we have today’s Feast of Jesus Christ King of the Universe.

The word “king” evokes various images. The pomp of monarchy. Or Shakespeare’s King Lear, old and foolish. Or the overly passionate King David and Bathsheba. Don't forget King Midas, whose golden touch couldn't buy daily bread. Midas lived 3,000 years ago. Wonder what he'd think of today's prices.

But what really is the Feast of Christ the King about? 

In this feast, we recognize the end of the liturgical year when, to quote the letter of Paul to the Corinthians, “every human being and all that is will be subjected to Jesus Christ, who will deliver the Kingdom of God over to his heavenly Father.” 

Ours is a Christo-centric universe. God became incarnate in Jesus to share God’s life and love and goodness with all creation by the power of the Spirit. Yes, all creation is alive with the goodness of God.

The book of Samuel takes us to the anointing of David as king of the tribes of Israel at the sacred shrine of Hebron, where Abraham centuries before had built an altar to God. Here the people acknowledge their kinship with the king. He will be their watchful shepherd and wise leader. As we reflect upon David’s anointing, we might reflect upon our own anointing at baptism, consecrated to live a life worthy of our calling as adopted sons and daughters of God our Father.

The letter of Paul to the Christian community at Colossae in Turkey highlights an early Christian hymn of thanksgiving to God and exaltation of Jesus as the Christ, the messiah. 

The first stanza describes Christ before his birth. He is the image of God, the model after which all things were fashioned. The second stanza describes Christ after his earthly life. He is the beginning, the firstborn of the dead, the head of the Church, the people of God, through whose dying/rising we’re in relationship with God. Christ, the God-man, completely divine and completely human, moves from heaven to earth and back to heaven. 

In the Gospel, we reexperience the theme of “rise and downfall.” We remember how Simeon prophesized in Luke’s infancy narrative that the child in his arms was destined to be the downfall and rise of many. One also can see this theme in the parables of the prodigal son (repentant, vs unforgiving) and the two men at prayer (one haughty, the other humble). 

Now we meet two robbers at Calvary: one who sees something transcendent in the bloody face of Jesus (“remember me when you come into your kingdom”); the other robber doesn’t see anything. One rises (“this day you will be with me in Paradise"). 

We as a community of faith profess our ultimate allegiance to Jesus Christ. We say that we prize this relationship with Jesus above all else. But how?

How do we spend our time, our energy, our resources? With Jesus in prayer and in service? Or are we simply absorbed in pastimes? I like the quote, “I shall pass through the world but once: any good therefore that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now, let me not defer or neglect it.” Jesus calls us to a God-centered, other-centered life.

Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov that people of faith want to believe in someone or something that is ultimately true. We proclaim that Jesus is our truth. Do we really believe it in our attitudes and behavior? Do we set our priorities in light of our ultimate purpose? What really makes us tick? God and the things of God? 

This Feast of Christ the King prompts each of us to ask, how can I rededicate myself more single-mindedly to Jesus, who is our way, our truth, and our life. 

Yes, how can we better live that relationship with God and others so that in the mystery of our own dying, God will transform us, as he did the earthly Jesus, into a new indescribable spiritualized body where we shall be like God and see God as God really is. Amen.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Life can surprise us. Not just with a sudden tornado or hurricane, as stunning as they may be.

In a maternity hospital waiting room, a nurse announces to a man, “Congratulations! You have one boy." The man says, "Wow! How fortuitous! I'm president of CapitalOne!" 

Later, the nurse says to a second man, “You have twins!" He replies, "What a coincidence! I own the Minnesota Twins!" 

Another man starts crying, and the nurse asks, "What's wrong?" He says, "I work at Seven Up"! 

Yes, God can be a God of surprising coincidences.

The book of Malachi takes us back in our imaginations to the fifth century before Jesus. The author proclaims a day of reckoning: on some future unknown day, God will punish the wicked and reward the good. To the point: God will hold each of us accountable for one's own behavior.

Paul, in his letter to the Christians in Thessaloniki in Greece, urges them to follow the example he sets. Paul not only preaches the Gospel but also earns his own living. “Imitate me,” Paul pleads. Don’t be freeloaders who goof off and grouse. Good advice.

In the Gospel, Jesus speaks of the destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple. Roman legions demolished the temple in 70 AD. 

The Jews were in shock, in a sense as people were when terrorists demolished the World Trade Center in 2001.

Anyway, Jewish historian Josephus, who witnessed the Roman siege, tells of six thousand Jews perishing in the temple, and hundreds of thousands put to death, and almost one hundred thousand taken as prisoners.

For Luke, the end of Jerusalem was the prelude to the end of this world. The author uses apocalyptic imagery: wars and earthquakes, famines and plagues. Despite all this, Jesus counsels us to persevere in our life of discipleship.

So we come to the end of the liturgical year, a calendar reliving the story of our salvation. This begins with Advent: re-experiencing the hope of our forebears for a Messiah. Then Christmas -- the birth of the Messiah. Later through Lent to the dying and rising of Jesus at Easter, and finally, after Ordinary Time, Jesus Christ comes “in great power and glory.” Next Sunday we will crown him king of the universe.

Yes, we celebrate the story that begins on the first page of Genesis: “God created the heavens and the earth,” and ends in Revelation: “Come, Lord Jesus.” We await the second coming of Jesus Christ, when God will transform this universe into a glorious kingdom in all its fullness. How this will be, in fire or ice as Robert Frost describes in his remarkable poem, we don’t know.

But the question is not how. Rather, in the mystery of our own dying, perhaps suddenly or maybe gradually, are we ready to enter the dazzling light of Jesus Christ, gloriously alive, where we will see who we really are. That light will illuminate our better (or worse) selves.

Some of you may have read Harold Kushner’s book Living a Life That Matters. In forty years, Kushner ministered to many people in their last moments. Those who had the most trouble with death, he wrote, felt that if God would only give them more time, maybe they could do something that truly mattered. What worried them was not death, but the fear they would die without making a difference for the better. 

Today's word of God asks you and me, are we ready to face the dazzling light of Jesus Christ? If not today, when will we be ready? 

Ultimately, we will see who we are. That moment will come at a particular time on a particular day. We simply don’t know when. The key question is quality of life, not length of years. 

Life is precious and can be short—there’s an urgency to live as best we can today. “Be prepared” is not simply a scout motto; it’s an everyday Christian motto.

What attitudes and behaviors do we have to change now to be the best version of ourselves? The beatitudes can be a good guide. Here’s one paraphrase; you may think of your own: 

“If we strive to seek God in our daily lives; 

if we readily spend time listening and consoling others 

who look to us for support, for guidance, for compassion; 

if we manage to heal wounds and build bridges; 

if others see in us goodness, joy, and serenity; 

and if we can see the good in everyone and seek the good for everyone, 

blessed are we.” 

Today’s word of God invites us to be prepared now to stand in the light of Jesus Christ gloriously alive. May the word inspire each one to value each day as a gift from God, and strive to become the best version of ourselves today. Amen!

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Tuesday is election day. How many are tired of mid-term politicking?  Do you know how politicians “polled” their constituencies when our nation was new 200 years ago, no phones, no email, no web. Here’s how they did it. Politicians sent assistants to taverns, telling them: “go sip here” and “go sip there and listen to the conversations.” “Go sip” morphed into the word “gossip.” Today’s polls are like high- tech gossip. 

Anyway, on Tuesday voters will decide who will control congress and some states. So don't forget to vote.

On Friday, November 11 we will honor our U.S. military veterans, over 18 million men and women. I invite our veterans to stand for our applause.  Thank you for your service.

Today’s word of God situates us in the second century before Jesus. King Antiochus IV is a tyrant determined to replace Jewish practices with Greek practices. The result is open rebellion. The book of Maccabees describes the martyrdom of a mother and her seven sons. 

They stood up for their beliefs and died for them. The author may be asking, do we speak up for what’s right?

The Letter to the Christian community at Thessaloniki in Greece urges people to persevere in discipleship with Jesus. God will strengthen them, so they can focus on God and the things of God.

In the Gospel, Jesus and the Sadducees talk about mortality and immortality. The Sadducees didn’t believe in life after death. They argue their case with the absurd example of seven brothers -- there's that number seven again -- marrying the same sister-in-law and then each immediately dying. “Who’s her husband in the next life?” the Sadducees ask. 

But Jesus turns the argument against them. He distinguishes between “this age” and “the next age.” What if God transforms us into a spiritualized body, raised to a new dimension? Even Moses alluded to life after death. Jesus leaves the Sadducees dumbfounded. 

The topic of violent deaths – sadly, not a hypothetical in recent news -- segues into the mystery of suffering from a Christian perspective. Our faith proclaims that hidden in every Good Friday is the glory of Easter. We believe that God transformed the dead body-person of Jesus into a new awesome reality: passing through locked doors, walking to Emmaus, eating on the shore at Galilee and then “vanishing.” 

The point is: the resurrection was real, even though the disciples couldn’t name the new mode of spiritual embodiment. And that new spiritualized body one day will be ours.

Meantime, we have our Good Fridays, when problems seem to overwhelm us. A job loss, severe illness, or a significant relationship unravelling. Our faith challenges us to remember that the narrative of Jesus did not end in the tragedy of the cross but in the triumph of the resurrection.

Still, we may wonder, where is God? This eternal question is highlighted in the book of Job, in the Confessions of Saint Augustine, in the literature of the novelist Dostoevsky, and in recent best sellers like Rabbi Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

As we reflect upon the human situation -- violence, denial of basic human rights in some countries, chaos in others -- we realize that our planet is wounded, and cries out for a transcendent healer.

Yes, at times, suffering does result from immoral behavior, from the misuse of freedom. Many tyrants have created untold sufferings. At other times, suffering results from uncontrolled natural disasters like fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, from an unfinished, incomplete universe. 

But ultimately, suffering is a mystery. How respond to it? 

First, we have to remember that God is always near. God seeks to bring us to the fullness of life. So, chisel in your consciousness the words of scripture, “Can a mother forget her child? And even if she does, I will never forget you.” 

Second, avoid negative judgments about ourselves in bad times. To think I really deserve it is a form of self-hatred. God loves us unconditionally, forgives us, accepts us. 

Finally, remember that the mystery of inescapable suffering has healing and redemptive power. Jesus, through the mystery of his death and resurrection, healed us, reconnected us to God in friendship. Our everyday inescapable aches and pains, borne with love, can be redemptive, can bring forth new depths of life in ourselves and in others. Why? Because Jesus brought forth a new and awesome life for us.

As we remember our deceased loved ones in November, we may ask, how do we come to terms with our own dying? Most of us do not long with St. Paul “to be free from this earthly life.” Many pass through Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and ultimately acceptance.

Some counselors help people cope by encouraging them to begin drafting their last letter to loved ones. This may highlight the most important gifts we can leave: love, faith in God, hope in life eternal, compassion, forgiveness, gratitude. There’s a template on the Internet for a last letter.

In the Christian vision, we expect that the all-good Creator God who continually amazes us will surprise us in the moment of our dying. So, as we reflect on today’s readings, let us recall that hidden in the dying of Jesus was the glory of resurrection. And hidden within our own dying is the glory of eternal life: a beginning of a new awesome life. 

In the meantime, try to do all the good you can, to all the people you can, in all the places you can, as long as ever you can. Amen.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

Every youngster knows what this Monday is: Halloween. In the middle ages, it was All Hallows eve, before All Saints Day, this Tuesday, and then All Souls, Wednesday. 

In Irish folklore, on October 31, the dead were thought to come back to life. Irish American immigrants in the 19th century popularized Halloween as we know it, asking for treats or threatening tricks. Make sure children are safe if they go out, and check any goodies they gather to be sure no one is playing a trick. 

The Gospels often highlight debates or arguments. I read elsewhere one example of how to start an argument. A wife wanted an SUV; her husband wanted a sports car. After back and forth, he finally said, “I want something that goes from 0 to 200 in four seconds or less! Surprise me.” The wife bought him a bathroom scale. That's when the argument started.  The moral: choose your arguments carefully.

Today’s word of God in the book of Wisdom speaks about the all-mighty God of the universe, creator of billions of galaxies with millions of stars in each galaxy, an awesome creator completely beyond us and yet utterly within us, a God who loves us unconditionally. God, the author observes, can be found everywhere: in the beauty of nature, in the diversity of the seasons, in people and other creations. 

The message is simple: Repent! Live a God-centered, other-centered life!

St. Paul in his letter prays that God will empower the Christian community in Thessaloniki, Greece, to continue doing good for others and to stop worrying about tomorrow. Carpe diem, seize the moment. Yes, we had yesterdays, and sometimes unfinished matters, and no one knows what tomorrow will bring. But this is the day that the Lord has made. Let us make the best of this gift. Good advice for all of us.

In the Gospel, Jesus meets Zacchaeus, a tax collector and, in the eyes of first-century Jews, a scoundrel. This man’s job was to tax his fellow Jews and turn the money over to their occupiers, who denied many of their basic human rights. 

Jesus wants to stay at Zacchaeus' house. The Jericho neighbors must have been shocked: Doesn’t Jesus know this man works for the enemy, makes money off fellow Jews?

 But Jesus's call became a transformative moment. From then on Zacchaeus will be generous and honest in his dealings.

Like Jesus, we too can help people transform into the best version of themselves. A good example of this is Dr. Karl Menninger's work. The renowned psychiatrist and mental health guru was asked to visit a woman who had been depressed since her husband’s death years before. As they talked, Menninger noticed the beautiful violets she grew. He wrote an unusual prescription: the widow was to read her local newspaper every day and send a violet to someone who experienced a significant event—a birth, a marriage, a death in the family.

Soon, the widow called Menninger and said she had become excited about life again. Each time she sent a violet, the receiver responded. The widow became known as the “violet lady” and lived her life happily with new friends. In short, she got out of herself by reaching out to others.

Yes, Jesus recognized the potential in people that others failed to see. Christ calls us to conversion, and to help others transform in a similar way by recognizing their gifts and abilities to bring joy and peace and hope to other people. Let the light of faith shatter the darkness.

Jesus challenges you and me to take stock of our lives, to examine our conscience about our priorities, what really matters. We may ponder, what is conscience? We sometimes feel guilty about things we do or don’t do, but conscience is more than feelings. It is our way of judging whether our behavior and our attitudes are in sync with the way we ought to relate to God and to one another. An informed conscience is our moral compass, an almost instinctive judgment about our behavior and attitudes.

The Ten Commandments are a good guide for examining our conscience, so that we can realize the best version of ourselves. The commandments are really about freeing ourselves from attitudes and behaviors that undermine our relationships. Our God demands that we practice virtue: for example, caring for aging parents; cherishing life from beginning to end; being faithful to our promises; speaking the truth; respecting the rights of others; and being generous with what we have.

 Today we might pray for the grace to always become the best version of ourselves, like Zacchaeus, so that we can reflect more transparently the glory of God in our lives vis-a-vis our families, relatives, friends and colleagues. AMEN.