Saturday, May 21, 2011

5th Sunday of Easter 2011

Do not let you hearts be troubled. These are important and beautiful words for us to hear. All of us have had troubles and anxieties in our lives. Jesus commands us not to let our hearts be troubled. Rather, we are to have faith: you have faith in God have faith also in me.

Now, we don't even think about this as being radical today, we all know that we are supposed to have faith in Jesus, but this is a bold claim. It's one thing to have faith in God. Most people would generally admit to believing in some deity, they believe that there is some force in the universe that created everything, some force that holds everything together. Many people believe that there is a god. But, having faith in Jesus is a tall claim. His claim to divinity makes an abstract belief in God alarmingly concrete. No longer is it sufficient to believe simply in the existence of a higher power, Christ tells us that if we are to alleviate our anxieties we have to believe in him.

Believing in Jesus is much more difficult than believing in an abstract force. Jesus is historical: we know where he was born, we know where he lived, we know his mother, we know when and how he died. Jesus is a human being like us in all things but sin. He said specific things, founded a particular Church. To believe in Jesus makes demands upon us. In a sense it is easy to believe in an abstract god because he makes no demands on us, besides maybe that we are to be good… whatever that means. Jesus, on the other hand, makes great demands: whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. Love one another as I have loved you. Jesus makes demands upon us. Why would we want to follow him?

I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me. Do we really believe this? It is a lofty claim! No one comes to the Father except through me. This doesn't seem very inclusive does it? Jesus isn't being very fair here. I mean aren't all religions the same, aren't there many pathways to God? This isn't the place to get into ecumenism or religious dialogues, but as Catholics we believe that Christ is essential. Because, Christ reveals to us not an amorphous force, not a distant watch maker, but a loving Father. Jesus Christ reveals to us the Triune nature of God. And, no one can approach the Father except through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is why Jesus Christ is the way the truth and the life, he is the path to the Father, he is the truth about existence, he is the very source of life. Jesus Christ, in his very person, the union of Divinity with Humanity, is the way, the truth, and the life. Notice something interesting here: Jesus does not say: I will show you the way, tell you the truth, and fill you with life. No! He is the way the truth and the life. Because Christ is fully God he is able to repair the damage of original sin: we see him overcoming sin and death by his own death and resurrection. This is what we have been celebrating for the last 5 weeks. Yet, because of his full humanity, we have communion with Christ as our brother. Jesus Christ is the bridge to heaven! He is the way to the Father! In Jesus we see the truth of existence: man united with God. In Jesus Christ we see life: he is no longer bound by death, he is risen. When we say that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life we are recalling our belief: God so loved the world that he sent his son so that all those who believe in him might not perish, but might have eternal life.

In our times of anxiety and trouble, our faith should support us, our faith is certainly important to us. But, our faith is not something distant and abstract. Rather, our faith is as real and concrete as Christ, because our faith is our relationship with Christ. Many people believe in God, do you believe in Christ? Do you have a living and concrete relationship with he who is the way the truth and the life?

The Holy Eucharist is the greatest aid we have in increasing our life of faith. This is the living body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ, poured out for our salvation. The Eucharist is living and concrete because Christ is living and concrete.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sheep and Shepherds

4th Sunday of Easter 2011:

Today Jesus uses figurative language to help us understand who he is. Yet, for many of us, these images are somewhat foreign to us. All of us have heard about Jesus the Good Shepherd, but maybe we don't understand this image as well as we should.

First of all, let's talk about sheep. The Lord is my shepherd, our Psalm says today. We are his people, the sheep of his flock, it says in another Psalm. Sheep and flocks are a common image in the Bible for God's people. Normally when we think about these sheep we picture cute, little, fluffy-haired animals. To think of ourselves as sheep is quite the endearing image. But, the truth of the matter is that being called sheep is not a very flattering image. First of all, sheep are really dumb. They do not know how to find their own food. Unlike other animals, sheep have no natural instinct about finding their way back to a home. They are prone to wander off. Also, we picture sheep as these little white creatures, but they are actually quite dirty. They spend a good deal of their time lying on the ground. Sheep are also dependent; without a shepherd, sheep would die in the ancient world. Nowadays we keep sheep in fenced in areas, but in the time of Jesus a shepherd would have to lead and guide the sheep at all times. So when it comes to sheep there are three d's to remember. Sheep are dumb, dirty, and dependent. This is not a very flattering image, but it is one that is quite true of us sometimes isn't it.

We can be dumb: every time we fall into sin or do something stupid we are being like sheep! We wander away from God and get tangled up and dirty. So these two things are true of us. But the most important one to remember is that we are dependent upon God for everything. Just like sheep, we would perish without our shepherd. We are completely dependent on God. But, this is one of the greatest spiritual problems of our day and age. Too many of us think of ourselves as being self-sufficient. We work hard and accomplish things on our own right? Wrong, everything we have comes from God and if we don't rely on his guidance we will wander astray. We need a shepherd.

By calling us sheep, we could think that Jesus is criticizing us and calling us dumb and dirty. But, Jesus came not to condemn us, but to save us. This is why he calls himself the shepherd. The image of the shepherd is another image that we don't completely understand. There is a great and storied history of Shepherds in the Old Testament. For example, both Moses and David, two of the greatest figures in the Bible, were shepherds. However, Moses and David both lived during a time when Israel was a nomadic people. When Israel settled into the Holy Land and built the temple they became a more settled and agrarian society. As a result it fell to the outcasts of society to take care of the sheep. Shepherds were not high and mighty; rather, the opposite is true: shepherds were seen as lowly outcasts, dumb and dirty like the sheep they took care of.

So when Jesus calls himself the shepherd it is a beautiful way to describe the incarnation itself. Jesus, himself the Son of God, became lowly, a humble shepherd. We are sheep: dumb, dirty, and dependent. But, God loved us so much that he sent his Son to be our shepherd.

In the ancient world shepherds had two main jobs. First of all, the shepherd protects his sheep. Jesus is the good shepherd who laid his life down for us. As we continue to celebrate the Easter season we remember that Jesus suffered and died to defend us from our greatest enemies: sin and death. Truly, Christ is the good shepherd who defends his sheep.

Also, shepherds had to guide the sheep. The same is true of us; Jesus has to be the one to lead us. Just like those sheep, we have to listen to the voice of the shepherd, but do we hear his voice? Do we spend time in prayer, do we read the Bible, do we listen to the voice of the Church, etc.? These are the ways we can hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. Where will this voice lead us? The Psalm says that the shepherd leads us to verdant pastures. These green pastures are important because they are the places where the good food is located. Christ leads us to these green pastures by way of another food.

Here in the Holy Eucharist our Good shepherd is feeding us. Here in the Holy Eucharist we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, the food that will sustain us in our journey through life. Like sheep, we might be dumb, dirty, and dependent. But, thanks be to God for he sent his only begotten son protect and guide us. Jesus says that he came so that we might have life and have it abundantly. We usually think about heaven when we read a passage like this. But, the truth is that by receiving Holy Eucharist this abundant life begins here and now.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Second Sunday of Easter: Blessed John Paul II

    Our first reading today gives us an interesting insight into the early Church. We hear that they were living in common, met in homes, prayed in the temple, and ate their meals with rejoicing. It said that "awe came upon everyone." It is easy to see why the Christians would be in awe: Jesus just rose from the dead. Wouldn't it have been amazing to be alive in those days? I cannot help but be a little bit jealous as we have read through the various resurrection stories. Don't get me wrong, there is plenty to like about living in our modern world: indoor plumbing, cars, electricity, air conditioning, golf… But, just imagine what it would have been like to see Jesus.

    Put yourself in the place of St. Thomas. Don't we sometimes feel like him? We have heard from others about Jesus, but we just want to see and touch him. We would believe if Jesus would just come to us as he did to Thomas. I think if we are honest, we would all wish to be in that room with the apostles when Jesus enters and says "Peace be with you."

But, instead we get this interesting line from Jesus: blessed are those who have not seen and believe. Blessed! We might feel as though we were unlucky for missing out on the appearances of Jesus, but we are truly blessed. Why? Jesus gave the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. The Holy Spirit has never departed us; rather, he continues the saving work of Christ down through the generations.

So, our first reading says that awe came upon everyone, and that sense of awe should continue to be part of our lives. We belong to the same Church; we have received the same Holy Spirit. When you think about the Church are you filled with awe and wonder? Very often we think of the Church not in glowing terms but as a lumbering bureaucracy full of rules and regulations. And while there is some truth to this at times, the Church remains ever new, ever exciting because its mission is to proclaim the resurrection of Christ to every generation by the power of the Holy Spirit.

John Paul II was a wonderful example of this kind of enthusiasm for the gospel. His pontificate was certainly new and exciting. He was the first non-Italian pope in over 450 years. He brought with him a fresh approach to the gospel. He came to Rome in a particularly difficult time. He was elected 10 years after the publication of Humanae Vitae. Many people had gotten the idea that even after the Second Vatican Council the Church was still an unfeeling and maybe even cruel organization that imposed unfair restrictions upon its people. This line of thinking supposes that the Church is nothing more than a bunch of rules and regulations: you can't do this, you can't do that, you have to go to Church on Sunday, etc. John Paul was certainly a contrast to this kind of thinking. He was convinced that the Truth was ultimately beautiful and that if people were presented with the Truth in an understandable way they would accept it and want to follow it. John Paul spent his whole life trying to share with the world what he called the Veritatis Splendor: the beauty of the truth.

This morning in Rome John Paul was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI. By declaring him Blessed the Church says that he lived a life of heroic virtue worth of our emulation. Today in the gospel Jesus tells us: "as the Father sent me, so I send you." So, as we are sent out by Christ to share the good news with others, we take John Paul as our model. He was not a heavy-handed dictator who preached nothing but sin and condemnation. Rather, he was an enthusiastic and joyful priest who tried to share with others the beauty of the Truth.

We should want to be like John Paul, he should be our model. But, where did he find that joy and energy? Every morning John Paul went into his chapel to pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament and to celebrate Holy Mass. It was here in the Eucharist that he found strength and consolation. It was here in the Eucharist that he found Jesus. While it is certainly true that cannot be in that upper room with the apostles, that we cannot put our hands into the side of Jesus as did St. Thomas, Jesus continues to come into our midst. He continues to say to us "Peace be with you," here in the Holy Eucharist. He continues to send us out to share this good news with the world. I can think of no better patron to pray for all of us as we try to carry this out than John Paul II: Blessed John Paul, pray for us.