Saturday, May 27, 2017

Ascension

Ascension 2017 Year A:
Today we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus, today we mark the day when Jesus returns to his Father in heaven.  I have always found this day a little bit odd.  If I were planning everything out, I think I would have Jesus stay here on earth.  We could build him a big castle.  We could put him in charge of everything.  Why not have the Son of God here as an earthly figure, ruler?
But, of course, I think that way because I’m small-minded.  Also, I think that way because the ascension looks like Jesus leaving us.  And I think all of us would agree, we don’t want Jesus to leave right?
But, listen again to the words of the Gospel: I am with you always.  These words from St. Matthew are the last words in the gospel.  This is how this story of Jesus ends.  Not with Jesus leaving or abandoning us; rather, Jesus says I am with you always.  Doesn’t that sound much better?
The ascension of Jesus is not his departure from our lives, not his departure from the Church, not his departure from earth.  Rather, the ascension of Jesus is the transformation of his presence.  While on earth, Jesus was in a certain location, at a certain time.  Now that he is raised from the dead and ascended to heaven, he is constantly present, constantly available, constantly with us.  Now that Jesus has ascended beyond the realm of space and time, he is not limited or restricted.  Rather, Christ is now with each one of us in a personal and intimate way.
So, you see, my small-minded concept of Jesus the great human ruler would actually restrict and limit Jesus’ presence in the world.  But, his ascension makes him present to all people, to all places, at all times.  In fact, I don’t think it is too much to say that the ascension of Jesus is actually what allows Christianity to exist. 
Christianity is the lived relationship with Christ, right?  It begins with the Lord’s command to baptize.  Then he tells them to make disciples.  What is a disciple?  A disciple is a person who knows Jesus.  A disciple is a person who follows Jesus.  Well, I would argue that without the ascension it would be impossible for us to be disciples of Jesus.  How would we be able to know him?  How would we be able to talk to him?  How would we be able to follow him and have a relationship with him if he were limited to a certain time and place?  Impossible.  Yet, with the ascension: “I am with you always until the end of the age.”

So, today we celebrate the ascension.  This is not the day where Jesus departs, this is the day where Jesus becomes intimately available for each and every one of us.  So, let’s open our hearts to the Lord and listen to him say in our own lives: I am with you always.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Do not let your hearts be troubled...

5th Sunday of Easter Year A 2017:
“I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.”  Jesus leads us to the Father.  He is the only pathway to heaven.  And how blessed we are to have Jesus as our guide.  I know I can say that this can be a crazy and confusing world we live in.  How many of us would be lost, wandering around without hope if it weren’t for Jesus?  He is our guide to heaven.  This is why it is so important for us to listen to Jesus’ voice, for us to know his words and his teachings.  Jesus wants to lead us to heaven if we listen to his voice and follow his commands.
But his commands can certainly be challenging.  Which one is the most difficult?  I’m sure each of us might list a different command: Love your enemy and pray for your persecutor; turn the other cheek; do not look at another with lust; forgive not 7 times but 77 times; love one another as I have loved you.  Yes, Jesus gives us some tough commands, but he gives us these commands to lead us to heaven.
But, in my opinion, one of the toughest commands that he gives is found in today’s gospel: Do not let your hearts be troubled, have faith.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, don’t worry, don’t fear, don’t have doubts, these things do not lead us to heaven.  Faith leads us to heaven, doubt, fear, anger, and anxiety will not lead us there.
But, I’ll freely admit that this is a struggle for me in my own life.  Anxiety, stress, and worry can really be a problem for me, especially in the last couple months.  Unfortunately, it’s been a really tense 2 months here at St. Jude’s.  We’ve had some great things going one: Easter, First Communion, Confirmation, weddings, etc.  All great, all beautiful; but also quite stressful.  But, all these events coincide with our annual budgeting process, which is also quite stressful. 
I don’t know about you, but life just always gets more stressful.  When I was in high school I thought: once I graduate and move out of the house, all my problems will go away.  Then what happened?  I found out that you have to pay bills and if you bounce checks it’s a real problem, etc.  More stress.  Then I went into the seminary.  I thought, going back to school and all my troubles will go away.  Then I found I had to write papers, read tough books, do service, learn how to pray and how to be a priest.  At the time I thought all that stuff was stressful.  Then I got ordained and found out that seminary was a like a vacation.  Now there were masses, funerals, weddings, confessions, appointments.  And that’s before I became a pastor.  Now as a pastor I have all that stuff, plus the stresses of managing a whole parish.
What’s my point?  I’m sure everyone here feels the same way.  Life always seems to get more stressful, more difficult.
Jesus knew this would happen to his disciples too.  That’s why he says: do not let your hearts be troubled.  If you notice trouble in your hearts, resolve to defeat it, overcome it.  Jesus tells us that faith is the key.  By listening to Jesus voice, by following his commands, we will have hearts filled with faith.  No stress, turmoil or problem will bring us down.  Now, this doesn’t mean that we won’t have stressful situations in our life, but they won’t be able to take over. 

As we celebrate this holy Eucharist we ask Jesus to strengthen that precious gift of faith.  We ask him to fill our hearts with his goodness so that we can fulfill his wonderful command: do not let your hearts be troubled.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Good Shepherd

Fourth Sunday of Easter Year A 2017:
Every year on the 4th Sunday of Easter we hear about Jesus, who is the Good Shepherd.  So you will often here this called Good Shepherd Sunday.  St. Peter in the Second Reading talks about us returning to the Shepherd and Guardian of our Souls.  Jesus tells us that he is the good shepherd and he came so that they might have life and have it abundantly.  Indeed, the words of the Psalm say it so well: the Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want. 
The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is one of our most beloved images of Jesus.  You see statues of Jesus with a sheep on his shoulders, pictures and paintings.  This is often the image we use when explaining Jesus’ love for us when we speak to children.  In fact, the earliest depiction of Jesus in Christian art comes from the 3rd Century.  This depiction of Jesus was found in one of the ancient catacombs.  In that image, Jesus is not on the cross, he is not teaching, he is the good shepherd.
But, I wanted to reflect just a little bit on what this means.  How can we speak about God?  How can we know about him?
If we stop and think about it, God is way beyond our comprehension.  God is eternal, all powerful, infinite.  God is 3 persons but one divine substance.  God is transcendent, our little human minds simply aren’t capable of comprehending God in his entirety.  So, anything and everything we say about God will be incomplete.  We say God is loving, God is merciful, God is patient, God is kind.  All these attributes are true, but they don’t sum up the essence of God. 
There is actually quite a difficult problem here.  Human language is quite limited.  Since it is a product of limited human beings, language can only take us so far.  In fact, people in history have tried to argue that since language cannot capture the essence of God, that it would actually be better not to say anything about God, since by speaking about God we will always fall short. 
But, the Church rejects this extreme position, because we follow the example of Christ in the gospel today.  While we acknowledge that human language cannot grasp the essence of God, it says in the gospel that Jesus spoke to them using figures of speech. 
Jesus says: I am the sheep gate.  Now, obviously, he is not literally a gate.  Gates don’t look like human beings.  So, it’s quite obvious that Jesus is using an image to try to explain a transcendent reality.  In this case, the image of the sheep gate is trying to explain a great mystery.  The image of the gate is an image for the communion between God and humanity.  We know that this communion was lost with the original sin.  Jesus is the new gate, open that leads to heaven.  These are tremendous mysteries that we can never fully grasp, but by reflecting on these images, our minds and hearts can be filled with God’s truth, even if we cannot know it fully.
What is your favorite image?  I’m assigning homework this week.  Take some time this week to reflect on your favorite image.  Maybe it’s the good shepherd.  Just pray psalm 23 slowly and fill in all the blanks: he leads me to green pastures, what does that mean for me in my life?  Maybe it’s the gate: Lord lead me into paradise.  Maybe it’s the image of faith being an anchor that gives us stability in difficult times.  Maybe it’s the image of the Church being the great boat that keeps us safe on our journey to the distant shore.  Maybe it’s the rock in the desert that once struck gushed forth life giving water.

There are so many images in scripture that elevate our hearts and minds to the mysteries of God.  On this Good Shepherd Sunday, we let our imaginations soar.  Jesus spoke using those figures of speech, not to confuse us.  But, to inspire us.  May our reflection upon Christ the Good Shepherd make us aware of his love and care for us, the sheep of his flock.