Sunday, April 26, 2015

I am the Good Shepherd says the Lord

4th Sunday of Easter year B 2015:
Today our readings use some interesting images or analogies that help us to understand our relationship to Christ.  The most obvious is Jesus as the Good shepherd.
Jesus helps to explain this one for us.  The Good Shepherd is the one who lays down his life for his sheep.  During this Easter season, and really all the time, we ceaselessly proclaim one central message:  Jesus died out of love for us, and he rose so that we might have eternal life.  From the earliest days in the Church this image of Christ as the good shepherd summarized and explained this central teaching.  One of the earliest artistic depictions of Christ, from the earliest centuries of the Church, was not Jesus Crucified, but Jesus the shepherd. 
Pope Francis has drawn on this image often.  The shepherd is close to his sheep.  As Jesus says, I know mine and mine know me.  Jesus is not some distant ruler, or king in a palace.  He is the good shepherd.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Word, through whom all things were made, became human.  He wanted to be close to us.  Shepherds are close to their sheep.  Not only that, but shepherds take care of their sheep, they lead them through danger, they find them food, they protect the sheep from wolves and other predators.  Jesus is the good shepherd.  He became one of us to get close to us.  If we listen to his voice and follow where he leads, he will guide us through the dangers of this life, he will strengthen and support us no matter what we face in our life.  In a sense, we never have to wonder about Christ, because we know he will be there for us.  All we have to do is look to the cross to see how much he loves us.  All we have to do is contemplate the mystery of the Eucharist to see how he continues to lay down his life for us.
But, there are two other images used in the readings that shed light on us.  In the second reading St. John calls us children of God, and Jesus calls us the sheep.  I think that these two images tell us a lot about being a follower of Christ. 
First, children of God.  I don’t think it takes too much to think about all the wonderful aspects of children.  Generally speaking people love kids and for good reason.  Kids are cute, first of all.  My mom used to say: good thing kids are cute, because sometimes we would want to give them back.  Children are trusting and innocent.  Children are joyful and quite funny.  Onetime a priest friend and I were invited to spend time at a family’s house.  We were sitting there talking, when a small child came up and asked my friend: is there a baby in your tummy.  Hilarious. Maybe my friend could use a few trips to the gym.  There is something beautifully admirable about how children live life.  They have a joy and enthusiasm that can be contagious.  Now there are drawbacks too.  Children can be dirty, childish, foolish, and selfish.  Certainly we don’t want to emulate these characteristics.  But, as God’s children, we could certainly learn to be trusting, more joyful if we rely on our Good Shepherd the way children rely on their parents.
Next, sheep.  I think we often romanticize the analogy of sheep, and there are many wonderful things about sheep.  First of all, they taste pretty good: I love lamb.  They produce wool that we can use to keep us warm, they provide milk and nourishment.  But, there are many drawbacks to sheep as well.  They smell bad, they are not really very intelligent, they are prone to wander off and get in trouble.  This is a good analogy for us as well.  We don’t always do the right thing, we wander into sinfulness and selfishness. 
These two analogies can help us to remember the beauty and charm of the human race: we can be trusting, we can live with joy, we can provide warmth and nourishment for those in need.  But, these analogies also help us to remember our weaknesses and shortcomings: we can be selfish, we can be foolish, we can wander and stray.  While it is good to remember our strengths, it can also be great to remember our weaknesses, not simply to beat ourselves up.  But, if we remember our weaknesses and shortcomings then we will remember that we need God in our lives.  We will remember that as God’s children, we need to rely on him to be our compassionate and merciful Father.  We will remember that as Christ’s flock, we need to follow him and allow him to guide us through the difficulties of life.

Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd.  He knows us.  Hopefully we are daily striving to know him more in our lives.   As we gather at this Holy Mass, the Good shepherd is calling to us, guiding us and feeding us through this Holy Eucharist.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Easter Vigil 2015

Easter Vigil 2015:
He is not here, he is going before you.  These faithful women expected to find Jesus with all the other dead people.  They went in search of a dead person and found something that amazed them.  They didn’t find a dead body, but an empty tomb and a messenger with an astounding message: he has been raised, he is going before you.  Imagine their surprise.  We know this story quite well.  We know that Jesus was raised from the dead.  The resurrection of Christ is central to our belief.  If Jesus had stayed dead, we never would have heard of him.  But, Jesus is alive, this is no surprise for us, but imagine again the surprise and amazement of those first people: he is not here, he is going before you.
When was the last time you were amazed by God?  When was the last time you knew how something was going to turn out, but it didn’t.  When was the last time you were looking among the dead, but found someone alive?  I think it happens all the time.  Maybe we get nervous about some important meeting, but everything goes well.  Maybe we get anxious about how we are going to pay the bills, but everything ends up working out.  Maybe we are stuck in some impossible, intractable problem, but then a surprising solution presents itself.  Or even in the midst of some sad circumstance, or some difficult suffering, God surprises us simply by giving us strength.  God surprises me all the time.
Let the message of Easter be surprising to you again.  Because we have heard the story of Jesus before, it can become a bit to common or ordinary: oh, yeah… Jesus rose from the dead… yawn.  I hope and pray that I never take that message for granted, that I never get bored of the resurrection, that I never stop being amazed by this message.  If we let it, the amazing message of the resurrection can change our whole lives.
Over the last couple of days we have been reflecting on a passage from St. John’s gospel.  It reads, “he loved his own in the world, and he loved them to the end.”  I believe that this passage is the interpretive key to the whole Triduum.  Thursday evening at the Last Supper, Jesus loved his disciples, by bending down and washing their feet.  He loved us all by giving us the gift of the Priesthood, and the Holy Eucharist.  Yesterday, Jesus mounted the wood of the cross to show us just how deep this love goes.  Yesterday, he poured out his life, even his heart was pierced.  He gave us everything because of his great love for us. 
Again, love helps us to understand what we celebrate tonight.  The resurrection of Christ is proof that love will not be defeated.  That even when things look bleak and hopeless, love finds a way.  Jesus died because he loves us.  But, he also rises because he loves us.  Jesus rises from the dead so that he can take us with him, like we hear tonight, he is going before us.  He loved his own, and he loved them to the end.  But, the beauty of this story is that death is not the end.  In fact, we haven’t gotten to the end yet.  The women today went to the tomb thinking the story of Jesus had ended, that’s why they were so surprised, so amazed.  Tonight is a chance for us to be amazed by God as well.
One of the best parts about being a priest during Lent is all the confessions.  I cannot tell you just how amazing it is to be a priest and to be able to absolve people of their sins.  Very often people come in weighed down by their sins and by the circumstances of life.  Very often we face a lot of difficulties in this life.  Some of these difficulties are because of our own poor choices, our own bad decisions.  But, sometimes these difficulties just happen to us, maybe an illness, a loss of a job, the loss of a loved one, a difficult family situation.  I sometimes meet people whose lives are filled with darkness.  My message to them is the same, Christ is our light even in darkness.  St. Francis of Assisi is quoted as saying that all the darkness in the whole world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.  No matter how much darkness we have in our lives, and there might be a lot, the light of a single candle can be the beginning of something new.  When times are tough, we need something bright.  Look at this candle.  The Easter Candle is a symbol for Christ.  Jesus Christ went into the darkness of the tomb, the darkness of death.  But, he rose from the dead.  Now he lives forever, he has gone before us to His Father, he wants us to follow him.  He is the light of the world.  He is the light that can shine in our darkness.  His love is so pure and so bright, that it can be our light in dark times.  Look again at this candle, let the love it proclaims amaze you all over again.

My friends every time you see this candle, remember the words of the Gospel: he loved his own in the world, and he loved them to the end.  Let this one light, namely the great love that Christ has for us, be the light in darkness.  Let this light shine.  No matter how much darkness we might face in this life, it cannot extinguish the light of this candle, the light of Christ, the symbol of his love and presence among us.  He loved his own, and he loved them to the end.  This candle reminds us that this love hasn’t ended.  I hope the light of this candle surprises and amazes us all.  Christ is Risen, he is not here, he is going before us.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Good Friday 2015


Good Friday 2015:
He loved his own in the world, and he loved them to the end.  Last night we saw the love of Christ being shown through the example of the washing of feet.  We saw how that love has been continued in the world by the gift of the priesthood, and by the gift of the Holy Eucharist.  Indeed Christ continues to love his own.  But, just how deep is this love?  Just how far does this love go?  If we ever wonder about the love of Christ, we look no farther than the Cross. 
The account of Christ’s passion reminds us how much he loves us.  Love is all about giving, serving.  Christ loved his own.  He gave everything for us.  He held absolutely nothing back.  He stretched out his arms on the cross, he gave everything for us.  Even his heart was pierced so that the very last of him could be poured out for love of us.  Because of his self-giving love, Christ was able to swallow up all the selfishness, hatred, violence, and sin of the whole world.  This act of love was so pure, so holy, so perfect, that all sin is but a little shadow in the face of the burning fire of this love. 
At the heart of our ceremony today is the veneration of the Cross.  We come forward as a people who love and appreciate the Cross of Christ.  We see it, not as some bizarre instrument of painful torture, but as a sign of a love so pure and deep that it changed the world.  The cross of Christ stands as the very center of Christian history.  It is at the heart of our lives.  I hope that there is never a day that goes by without each one of us thinking about the love of Christ shown on the cross.    Today, on this special day, we come forward to kiss, touch, or genuflect before the cross as a way of thanking Christ for his love.
But, it doesn’t end there, of course.  Hopefully, by coming in contact with a love this strong, it changes us.  When we touch this cross of Christ, I hope it leaves a mark on us.  Last night, as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, he said: I have given you an example.  I think this is also true of the cross: as I have done, so you must do.  Today, as we touch the cross, we feel and touch the love of Christ.  Then we hear in our hearts: so you must do.  

Holy Thursday 2015

Holy Thursday 2015:
Here we are my friends, we have entered into the Holy Triduum.  Over the next three days we walk with Christ, tonight we gather with him for the feast of the Passover.  Tomorrow, we will stand at the foot of his cross.  Saturday night, when everything seems dark and hopeless, we will be there as he rises from the grave.  This Holy Season is like none other.  These three nights summarize our whole Christian faith.  This is the very center and summit of everything we believe. 
In some ways, these next three days will seem like a whirlwind.  In a way, it’s like trying to take a drink from a fire hose.  No matter how much we take in, it seems like so much goes past us.  But, that’s ok.  I think that is the wonder of this Triduum.  Don’t worry if you are not able to process this whole mystery.  That would be impossible.  Rather, just come here open and ready to hear what God has to say to you.  As I was preparing this week for the Triduum, one line from tonight’s gospel really stood out for me.  In fact, I think this one line helps us to understand what is happening over the next three days.  In fact, I think it gives us the key insight into Christ’s mission here among us.  We just heard: “he loved his own in the world, and he loved them to the end.”  This weekend is all about love.  Love explains why Christ does this.  He loved his own, and he loved them to the end.
His love is pure and genuine.  So often, in our own lives, our love can be pure and genuine at times, no doubt about it.  But, very often, because of our sinfulness and our weakness, our love is not always as strong as it should be.  Sometimes our love is mixed with self-interest.  Sometimes we fail to love.  Christ shows us what love looks like.  “You call me teacher, and Master, and rightly so.  If I have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet.”  In this profound moment of love and humility, Jesus shows us what love looks like.  Love always looks like service.  Love always looks like self-denial.  Love always ends up looking like the cross.  But, that is for tomorrow.  Tonight, love looks like bending down and serving one another.
Over these past 2 years I have been so edified by the loving response of this parish to the needs of others.  Over the past two years I have seen countless acts of self-sacrificial love.  Whether it is food collections, giving trees, financial donations, gifts of time or talent, our stations of service projects, and more, I think this parish takes the words of our Lord quite seriously.  If Christ is going to stoop down and serve each one of us, then we must serve those around us.
I think tonight is a privileged moment for us to think of two ways that Christ serves us in love and humility.  The example he shows us in the washing of feet is lived out daily in the life of the Church, for the service of Christ lives on in the priesthood and in the Holy Eucharist.  Both of these gifts are gifts of love, both are gifts in humility.  Christ has never stopped bending down and washing our feet, but he does it in these two sacraments.
Tuesday evening this week I was in the Cathedral with many priests, gathered around the bishop.  During this Chrism Mass, the bishop asks us to renew the promises of ordination.  This was my 5th time renewing my promises.  It was a powerful spiritual experience for me.  There are two main promises that stood out for me.  The first promise asks me if I am ready to renew my commitment to growing closer to Christ.  We never stop in our growth as disciples.  Hopefully, we are always moving closer to Christ.  I know that in my own life, this is precisely what is needed.  The second promise asks me if I am ready to renew my commitment to serving as a priest, by celebrating the sacraments and preaching the Word of God. 
In a way, these two promises helped me to see the mystery of the priesthood.  First, it is about normal men, like me, who in spite of our weaknesses and sinfulness, have heard the call from Christ to follow him in a special way.  This call means that I have given my whole life to Christ.  On the day of my ordination, I gave myself completely to Christ and his Church.  There is something scary about giving myself away, about placing myself in the hands of another.  But, I’m putting my life in Christ’s hands.  He loved his own in the world, and he loved them to the end.  The mystery of the priestly vocation begins with an experience of Christ’s love.  I wouldn’t be here tonight if I hadn’t known Christ’s love for me, if I hadn’t heard him calling my voice down this road.  So, that first promise is all about me remembering Christ’s love.
But, that second promise reminds me that the priesthood is not simply for me.  It is not all about me getting a chance to experience Christ’s love.  The priesthood is precisely a chance for me, and all priests, to live out the commandment that Jesus gave to the apostles: I have given you an example, as I have done for you, you should also do.  Since Christ has loved me, and gave his life for me.  I love him in return, and give my life in service.  This is the gift of the priesthood, the love of Christ gets reflected in the world.
Of course, this love comes to us through the priest in one very special way, the Holy Eucharist.  He loved his own in the world, and he loved them to the end.  Is there a better description of the Eucharist, than the love of Christ for us to the end?  Just as Jesus stooped down to serve his disciples and friends, he continues to do that at every Mass.  In lowly and humble signs, Jesus gives us his very body and blood.  He has never stopped loving us.  His love is poured out for us at every mass.  Whether it be a huge mass at St. Peter’s with the pope, or a small early morning mass at a parish: it is Christ who serves and loves us to the end. 

The next three days are all about the love of Christ.  Tonight, he stoops down to wash us clean.  He sends out the apostles as priests to serve others.  He gave a special sacrament whereby his love is poured out until the end of time in the Eucharist.  Tomorrow and Saturday we will have more opportunities to continue our reflection on the love of Christ.  But, tonight, this holy night, we draw near to Christ in this Last Supper.  We peacefully sit with him as he bends down to serve us.  We attentively listen to him as he inaugurates a new covenant in his own blood.  After this dinner we sit with him in prayer, not in the garden of Gethsemane, but here in this Church.  As I said earlier, be open.  Listen to the voice of God who speaks in your hearts.  I believe you will hear one message quite clearly, “he loved his own who were in the world, and he loved them to the end.”

Sunday, March 15, 2015

God, our Loving Father

4th Sunday of Lent 2015:
Today is often called Laetare Sunday.  Laetare Sunday is one of the 2 Sundays during the Church year where we don pink, or if you prefer Rose, colored vestments.  We do so as a way to mark the fact that while we are still in Lent, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  The word Laetare comes from the entrance antiphon from today’s Mass: Rejoice Jerusalem.  So even though we are in the midst of a penitential season, a season that began with the somber reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return, the Church is reminding us to be joyful.  Remember that joy is not the same thing as bubbly enthusiasm.  Rather, joy is the peace of heart that comes from a relationship with Christ our Savior.  Joy comes from faith in the gospel.
So, in a way, Laetare Sunday is meant to be a bit of a pick-me-up.  I don’t know about you, but I’m sort of getting tired of Lent by now.  I wish I could have some sweets!  I miss singing the A word during Mass.  I’m about ready to be done with all this Penance.  This Laetare Sunday is the Church’s way of saying that Lent can be long and hard, but that we practice penance as a way to prepare ourselves to celebrate the joys of Easter.  It is a time to purify our intentions, to regroup and refocus our penance for the final push to Easter, when we will renew our baptism.  If we have lost our enthusiasm for penance today is a day to regain it.
Today we are continuing our exploration of the baptismal promises.  For the last three weeks have been thinking about rejecting Satan and his works and promises.  For the next three weeks we will look at the other side: proclaiming faith.  I think this is an important thing for us to do, because it shouldn’t always be gloomy Catholicism.  I know that some people think that the Catholic Church is just against a whole bunch of stuff, or that all we do is point out what is a sin.  But, that is certainly not how I see our Catholic faith.  While we need to reject Satan, it is ever so much more important to grow in our faith. 
Do you believe in God the father almighty, creator of heaven and earth?  Do you believe in God?  I think most people, at the end of the day, believe there is a higher power.  I think most people probably believe there is something more than just what we see.  But, who is God?  As Christians we understand God because his Son Jesus told us about him.  We believe that God is almighty, creator of heaven and earth.  But, we also believe he is our Father.  This is a unique perspective, not shared by everyone.  God is not only the maker and the creator, but he is our loving Father.
Today’s gospel is one of those places where this is revealed to us: John 3:16 God so loved the world that he sent his beloved Son.  And one of my personal favorites: John 3:17 Jesus did not come to condemn but to save.  These two passages form, in many ways, the very heart of the gospel.  Jesus came to tell us that God is not some distant master, or some cosmic energy.  Rather, God loves the world and he sent Jesus here to save the world, to save each one of us.  This is truly a remarkable and groundbreaking belief: God loves us and sent Jesus to save us.  Hopefully this moves our hearts with love for God.
But there is one important feature to today’s gospel we cannot neglect.  Sure, John 3:16 and John 3:17 tells us that God is our loving Father, but listen again to how this love makes itself known: Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the son of man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.  Love is manifested in the cross.  God so loved the world that he sent Jesus not to condemn but to save, but this love comes to us precisely in the suffering and death of Jesus. 
This gets me back to the season of Lent.  Lent is a time of struggle, a time of purification, a time of penance.  Lent is a time of sacrifice, of self-denial, of almsgiving.  Lent is a time to enter into the sufferings of Christ.  And, it is precisely through our suffering, our penance and self-denial, that we enter into the suffering of Christ, and in this way we are prepared to enter into the great Joy of Christ at Easter.  Our penance helps us to purify our hearts so we can renew the promises of our baptism.

In our own lives we live out the paschal mystery, namely that God loves the world, he sends Jesus to save us, Jesus shows this love on the Cross, which leads to the resurrection, which fills the world with Joy.  Love leads to joy, but it gets there by way of the cross.  Hopefully we start with love of God, and we want to get to the Joy of the resurrection.  But we too get there through suffering, we too get there through the cross.  Our love for God will lead to the joy of Easter, but only by going through this season of Lent, which is how a season of penance is lived as a season of Joy.  We are getting close to Easter, no wonder the church reminds us to rejoice.