I know that I have said this many times before, but this is truly one of my favorite verses in all of Scripture: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.” And this time I can prove it; this is the verse that I chose to have printed on my ordination holy card 27 years ago. You might say that this verse is my “John 3:16.” Why this verse, you might ask, out of all the others? Well I suppose it is because, at least to me, this verse expresses very clearly the desire that is so much in Jesus’ heart-that His joy might indeed be our joy. Isn’t that a wonderful concept? He wants His joy to be our joy and he wants our joy to be complete. That is what he so desires for us; it is why He says everything He says; it is why He does everything He does; it is why He died on the cross-so that we might be full of joy. At the time of my ordination I felt that these words expressed what needs to be at the heart of the mission and ministry of the priest-to express Jesus’ desire that all people might be full of true joy and to be agents of spreading the joy of Jesus to everyone. To this day, I try, albeit very imperfectly, to use these words as a guide to all my thoughts, all my words, and all my actions. The priest is called to strive to be a bridge which allows people to have access to Jesus. To me, that’s what these words are all about. Of course, however, these words are not just meant for priests. They are meant for all of us. They teach us that Jesus’ primary purpose is to help us experience His joy. That is what it is all about- not sin, not suffering not death, but joy-His joy. But not only does He want His joy to be ours, He needs us to spread His joy to everyone. And the way that we do that is to live as if we believe it. If we believe that Jesus wants His joy to be ours, and live as such, then indeed we will spread His joy to others and our joy will be complete.
During this Holy Week and Easter Season, I have often said that the key message of the Easter Season is that “love lives.” Of course I am referring to the fact that Jesus, who is the perfect personification of the love of God the Father, rose from the dead on Easter Sunday and lives eternally. But Jesus is not only the embodiment of love. He is the embodiment of love in action. Jesus is love in action. He is perpetually acting in a loving way. He loves everyone exactly as they are, whether, it is the woman caught in adultery, the rich young man, Nicodemus, the man born blind, the ten lepers, etc. He accepts everyone, He accepts, us exactly as He finds us. But He does not stop there; love does not stop there. He loves us as we are but then He calls us forth just as He called Lazarus forth from the tomb. He forgave the adulterous woman but then commanded her to sin no more. He looked at the rich young man with love but then challenged him to give his wealth to the poor. Love is accepting; but because love is love it is not satisfied with leaving us stagnant. Jesus loves us where we are and because He does He calls us, He challenges us to change, not to remain the same. Jesus calls to “Remain in His love,” and we cannot do this if we remain the same, we have to move, we have to grow and change if we are going to follow Him. That is what the image of the vine and the branches is all about. He is the vine, we are the branches. Our challenge is to remain with Him, to stay connected with Him so that we might bear much fruit. This means that we have to change, that we have to be pruned so that we might become more like Him. If we do not change and grow with Him we will wither away. Love lives. Love accepts. Love challenges.
I bet you have seen a shepherd recently. I believe that we all see shepherds each and every day – but do we recognize them. Before we answer the question we need to answer the specific question - what is a shepherd?
There are many biblical references about shepherds starting with the birth of Jesus and in today’s gospel proclamation we read the reference to Christ the Good Shepherd. Did Christ really tend sheep? Isn't that our envisionment of a shepherd or specifically their ‘job’? We often have the mental picture of a shepherd but really what is the duty/work/service profile of the shepherd. The definition of shepherd found in my research is: - a person who tends sheep, a pastor or a German shepherd.
With this definition in mind we can certainly see how the reference to Christ as the Good Shepherd is fitting. Often we refer to our pastors or clergy as shepherds so that works as well. I would suggest that we as individuals each have a role both as shepherd and as recipient of the shepherds care. Look around you for the most evident example of ‘shepherd’. Parents, fathers and mothers alike, certainly have the role of a shepherd. Just as the shepherd tends the flock with diligence love, compassion, to the extent of risking all for the sake of one in the herd so do parents shepherd their family regardless of malady, illness, in good times and in not so good times, with little sleep, the list goes on – you get it, all for the child or children. Even later in our life we the children are called upon to shepherd our parents in their twilight years.
Many times in our life we find ourselves challenged by our surroundings and evil, on the edge of a very crash. We need only look to the Good Shepherd with confidence of His love, encouragement, wisdom, perspective, strength, patience and grace. Just as the child looks to the parent we can look to and rely on Christ fully there for each and all of us. There is no question of commitment – look at that crucifix and know. It’s a most appropriate time of the calendar year to reflect on our own call to shepherd and likewise to those who shepherd us –our mothers and fathers who we recognize in May and June each year.
And so the disciples who had just left Jerusalem, who were returning home to Emmaus, who were about to try to figure out the next direction their lives would take after the death of Jesus, suddenly found themselves back in Jerusalem speaking to the 11 Apostles about the amazing experience they had just had. As they were walking along, they encountered someone they thought was a stranger, someone with whom they were so enamored that they begged him to stay with them for their evening meal. Finally, when He broke bread at their table, they realized that He was no stranger at all but that He was Jesus risen from the dead! But as soon as they recognized Him, He vanished from their midst. At this point they could think of nothing else but to quickly get back to Jerusalem and tell the Apostles. That is how it’s like when we have had a true experience of Jesus, isn’t it? All we can think of is to tell other people. And while they were recounting their story to the 11 Jesus appeared in their midst. He (Jesus) did His best to put everything He ever said or did in perspective for them and then left them with these beautiful words: “You are witnesses of these things.” Those are great words, wonderful words, aren’t they? But then again, on second thought are they not much more than just that? Do you think that Jesus would come back from the dead and visit His disciples simply to say nice things to them, or whisper sweet nothings in their ears? I think not! I can almost hear my mother exclaiming, “Not for nothin’!” Folks, the more I think about it, the more I cannot help but think that those words are not merely a nice statement of the obvious-they are a command. Jesus did not suffer and die and rise for us just so we could live “happily ever after” (besides that’s very boring anyway) or bask eternally in the knowledge that we are witnesses. He did so, so that He would have witnesses to spread His good news. Being a witness is not something that we are; it’s something that we do-it is a tremendous responsibility. We are witnesses of Him. So just don’t sit or stand there, go out and proclaim through your words and deeds that Jesus Christ is risen.
So here we are, celebrating the Second Sunday of Easter, the Sunday within the octave of Easter, the Sunday also known as “Mercy Sunday,” and as per usual, we hear the story of “Doubting Thomas” and we know how that story goes. The Apostles were locked in the Upper Room for fear of the Jews, the Romans and whatever else might be “out there.” But I don’t think that’s all they were afraid of. I think they were also afraid of what was inside as well. I think they were afraid of what was in their hearts, of the future, of who they were, and how they would go on, even if it what was currently “out there” was no longer out there. Remember, each one of them, with the exception of John, had betrayed Jesus, they failed to stand beside Him in His hour of need. I am pretty sure that a lot of soul searching was going on. I am pretty sure that, yes, they were scared, but I bet they also, were pretty remorseful, pretty sorry, pretty regretful, pretty down on themselves. And so the doors were locked. Do we ever do that? Do we ever lock the doors of our hearts, of our souls, perhaps because partially we are afraid of what’s “out there,” but maybe even more so because of the regret that’s already in our hearts to the point where we just can’t take any more? I am pretty sure that we do, I am pretty sure that many of us have done this, that many of us are doing it right now, and that many of us will do it again. But that’s where the lesson of this Second, Sunday of Easter, this “Doubting Thomas” Sunday, this Mercy Sunday comes in. Although the doors were locked we are told that Jesus came and stood in their midst. That’s what He did for the disciples, and that’s what He does for us. Imagine, their amazement, but also imagine their shame and their fear because of their guilt? But what does He bring? “Peace be with you,” He says to them. He brings mercy and forgiveness and gives them a mission- to forgive the sins of all. That’s what He brings to us, and to our locked hearts. Peace. Mercy. Forgiveness. New Purpose. Amazingly and Unbelievably… Are your doors locked? That might be able to keep the bad guys out there, but take heart, they won’t be able to keep Jesus out, not if you long for Him.
Maybe I am a little bit behind, but even as we are celebrating Easter and the Resurrection of Jesus I still find myself reflecting on the story of the raising of Lazarus, which we heard two weeks ago. I kind of can’t get passed the fact, and I know it is probably a small detail, that Jesus commanded that the stone that was blocking Lazarus’ tomb to be rolled away before He raised him from the dead. I also find it amazing that His command is a very real and clear foreshadowing of the stone that was soon to be rolled away from Jesus’ own tomb. I am kind of stuck on this idea of stones being rolled away from tombs. Stones that are rolled away so that life, new life, freed life, resurrected life can come forth. And you know what else, we know, at least in the case of Lazarus’ stone, it wasn’t Jesus who rolled it away. I wonder who rolled away His stone-but I will wager that it was not Him. I think that Jesus’ life and ministry make it quite clear that the ones who roll away the stones are not Him but us. As a matter of fact, Jesus never performs a miracle, without demanding that those involved do something. It might be filling jugs with water, it might be the selling of possessions, it might be handing over five loaves and two fish, but it is very true that miracles are performed only when we humans do something that— Jesus acts. We might say that only when we do what we can-when we do the possible, that Jesus does the impossible. We roll away the stones, we pour the water, we anoint with oil, we make and offer bread and wine and Jesus confers the sacraments. And He won’t, if we don’t. So as we celebrate Jesus’ rising from the tomb let’s reflect for a moment on who it might have been that rolled that stone away and be very grateful that it was. But further we need to look around our own lives, our own hearts, our own souls and see how much like Lazarus we have become. I bet if we look around a little bit it won’t take too long for us to see the stones that are blocking paths to life for us or others in our lives. Maybe we see so much damage that has already been done that it is just impossible to repair. That’s just how humanity was when Jesus came to earth-it was in an impossible situation. But He went around challenging people to do what they could in support of Him and then He did what He could. That’s what Easter is about. The lesson of Easter is that Jesus is commanding us to do what is possible so that He might do the impossible. If we don’t, He won’t. If we do, He will.
Believe it or not, it is Palm Sunday, 2018! We are about, once again to enter into holiest of all weeks of the year, as we begin by commemorating the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem and His Passion. Next Sunday of course, we will celebrate His Resurrection. But what about all the days in between remember it is “Holy Week;” it is made up of seven days, not just one or two. Our invitation and challenge is to make sure that we do not miss it, that we accept the invitation and challenge of Jesus to walk with Him from the time of His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, through His sorrowful passion to His joyful Resurrection. I firmly believe that here at Saint Aloysius Parish you will have ample opportunity to do just that. Of course, we will begin by participating in today’s celebration of the Mass of Palm Sunday. Note that we are invited to leave from Mass in silence as a sign of the fact that we are beginning the most solemn journey with Jesus through the holiest of weeks. Perhaps you would consider participating in the Communion Service on Monday at 8:30AM, and/or Mass on Tuesday and Wednesday at 8:30AM, so that you might continue walking with Jesus as He moves closer and closer to the Upper Room and Gethsemane. I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity on both Monday [3/26] and Wednesday [3/28] evenings at 6:30 PM to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Please note that this is your last chance to receive the sacrament before Easter. Then on Tuesday evening [3/27] at 6:30PM in the school gymnasium our parish school children will present the “Living Stations.” They have been working so hard and they have done a fantastic job; you will not want miss it! Then, on Holy Thursday we will celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at 7:00 PM. Join us as we present the newly blessed sacramental oils, celebrate once again with Jesus the Last Supper, the First Mass, the institution of the Eucharist and of the Priesthood. At the end of Mass the altar will be stripped, statues, etc. will be covered in black and we will process the Blessed Sacrament down Hanover Street and back into the Gathering Center to the Altar of Repose which will be where the Sacred Heart statue now stands. As the Triduum continues we will commemorate Christ’s passion and death with the celebration of 8:30AM Morning Prayer on Good Friday. Adoration will continue throughout the day until our Celebration of the Lord’s Passion at 3:00 PM. This is an absolutely moving service which includes the most powerful ritual of the Veneration of the Cross. On Holy Saturday morning, we will pray Morning Prayer at 8:30AM once again in the barren church. Immediately following morning prayer, you may bring your Easter food to church to be blessed. Then we wait with heartfelt expectation for the blessing of the Easter Fire at 7:26PM on the evening of Holy Saturday as we begin the Easter Vigil and celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus. As you can see, this is indeed the holiest of weeks. Do not miss it!
In our Gospel passage for today, the 5th Sunday of Lent, the last Sunday before Palm Sunday (can you believe it?), we hear a story that is presented only by John. It is the story of some Greek Jews who were in Jerusalem for the Passover who expressed their desire to see Jesus to Phillip. Now by this point, folks, we should know that we are in for some kind of very special teaching. We are coming up against the mystery of the Passion and Jesus now has the opportunity to speak to these, probably very well educated, visitors from Greece, who are always interested in wisdom and learning. So, what is he going to serve them and us? Well, here is some of what He says: "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.” That certainly is a mouthful, is it not? Some of the most profound teachings that Jesus ever gave us were first served up to these Greek visitors. Jesus is saying nothing less than, that He is about to be glorified-on the cross; that if we want to live our lives to the fullest, we must first lay them down; that if we endure all kind of suffering in this life for Him, we will enjoy eternal life with Him; and that the Father will honor whoever serves Him. I know how I feel as I try to fully comprehend all that Jesus is saying in these few lines even though I have heard them so many times before; can you imagine how His Greek guests must have reacted upon hearing it for the first time? I wonder if Jesus advised them to allow themselves a little extra time to digest what He had just served them. Actually, that’s still some pretty good for us today. We are, after all, only a week away from Palm Sunday.
Written by Deacon George Harmansky
Light is light, Dark is dark. Once upon a time that was spoken to me and quite frankly I sure had no clue exactly what that meant. As I grew in years and thankful some wise-ness I began to see the wisdom of the comment. First in a physical sense and later spiritually. As a child, as many do, I had this (yes) fear of the dark. Who is afraid of the dark? I mean - pitch dark - that you can’t see your hand in front of your very eyes. There is something about the dark that elicits fear, apprehension, uneasiness. It just creeps you out. Now that being said, in life we typically associate dark(ness) with evil. Often the ‘bad guy’ in the movies is portrayed as this sinister, evil individual dressed in black apparel and accessories. Even bats, which many of us so fear and speak about with disgust, thrive in the darkness of our world – go figure they like the dark. As human beings we work, feel, act differently, better in the light with sunshine as compared to that in the night-in the dark. In the midst of a storm on the ocean the ship’s captain seeks the saving rays of the lighthouse to safely guide it through the stormy waters of travel.
In my law enforcement days, the dark of the night always seemed to cast a different appearance on events that in daylight were otherwise approached with less scrutiny and apprehension. Early on with the application of crime prevention which advocated proactive in lieu of reactive delivery of law enforcement services I was introduced to ‘target hardening’. This hardening included the application of light which was and still is an effective tool in the crime prevention arsenal. Simply applied the bad guys are less likely to operate in the well illuminated environments – more likely to hang and lurk in the dark and darkened areas to stalk and commit their criminal offenses. Darkness provides cover, hiding and obscuring the perpetrator while the effects of light on the same situation is very obvious – things visible, seen, detected, observed etc.
In the Gospel today again, as we’ve read before, we see Christ as the Light. In Him we find the way – the alternative to dark/darkness. Christ came as our sonshine bringing light to mankind affording us the opportunity to move from the darkness of evil in our lives to that of our Creator’s light. We are offered a way in Christ as our saving ray – our lighthouse - to guide us through the stormy evil filled waters of life. Just as the perpetrator seeks the dark we seek Christ the light to pull us from the dark to eternal life with the Father. Evil is attractive, the darkness of evil plays to our pleasure(s) keeping us from the light in which we see evil for what it is. Christ our lighthouse stands out solid and strong casting the ray of guidance, hope, safety and security to we the travelers in the ocean of life.
Well, here we are; we have already arrived at the third Sunday of Lent. Today we will be talking about the grace of God, which He has given to us without cost. Not only is His grace completely free, it is always more than enough for us. What the world offers us is never free, God’s grace is always free. God’s grace leads us to victory; the more of the world always leads us away from Him. Grace can be defined as God’s presence in the world and in our lives but it is more than that; He is not only present in our lives, as St. Paul says, He is “for us,” He favors us, at all times no matter what we do or don’t do, no matter what we say or don’t say; but His grace is more than that. God’s grace is powerful. God is not only always with us, not only is He for us, not only does He favor us, His grace is powerful. St. Paul says, “If God is for us, who can be against?” There is no adversary that we will ever have that can ever stand against the power of God’s grace. God’s grace is victorious. Always. And it is a completely totally free gift. Today we hear of another totally free gift of God; the gift of his Ten Commandments; His Ten Commandments. To truly understand the Ten Commandments we need to look at them from the standpoint of His grace. They are free, they are for us, they are not burdensome, they are powerful and they lead us to victory. They are given to us in the same way that a Father gives parameters and guidelines to His children. They are given out of an abundant love. They are not a set of conditions. They are not a scoreboard. They are not arbitrary. They are not burdensome. They do not condemn. They are a path to life. They are keys to God’s abundant grace which is the more that we have been looking for. Everything God gives to us, He gives to us from His love, which is all He is. He gives the commandments to the Israelites after He rescued them from slavery as a means of showing them how to live in freedom. As we make ourselves more and more receptive to the grace of God, He bestows more and more gifts upon us. That’s how we should see the commandments. They are, like the grace of God, for us, and they are a pathway to His grace, which is always more, so much much more than enough for us.
At one point in the story of “Testing of Abraham,” as Abraham and Isaac are on the way to carry out what Abraham believed was the Lord’s will that he sacrifice his son, Isaac presented him with the inevitable and pointed question: “Father,” he said, “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” Now, imagine that you are Abraham; imagine how you would feel if your son, the son of the promise that was at long last fulfilled miraculously by God, the son whom you loved above anything that you could possibly imagine, the son whom you are at that very moment taking to the place where you are about to offer him in sacrifice to the God who gave him to you, asked you that question? How on earth would you answer him? Could you answer him? Would you tell him the truth? Would you lie to him? Well, this is how he did answer him: “My son,” Abraham said, “God Himself will provide the sheep for the burnt offering.” So, did Abraham lie to his beloved son? I contend not. I argue that he shared with his son the only truth that his faith would allow him to believe and on which he depended. I believe that the only hope that kept him going was the hope that somehow, provided that he was totally obedient to what he truly believed was the will of God, he would come back down that mountain with his son by his side. And that is what did happen. God did provide the sheep for the sacrifice. There was a ram caught in the thicket. That, I believe, is the invaluable lesson of this story. For those who are faithful and obedient to the Lord no matter what He asks, no matter what it costs, no matter how much sense it does not seem to make, there will always be, at the very last moment, a ram caught in the thicket and the promise of the Lord will always remain intact.
Once again last week, we heard the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert. Of course, we know He knows that he won a dramatic victory over Satan and that His victory is meant to inspire our own victory over temptation during this season of Lent, but I can’t help but thinking, does anyone ever fight temptation anymore? I mean, really, does anyone see any value in such an arcane struggle in the present day? Perhaps I am seeing the glass as half empty, but I do think I have valid reasons to be concerned. We are so affected by the modern culture that I even wonder if we recognize sin any more or the value of trying to stay away from it – and that is the very reason that Jesus died on the cross! Have we actually gotten to the point where we really value trying to stay away from the very thing (sin) from which Jesus came to save us? Honestly, I am very worried. It would take many books to analyze the negative effects of modern culture on us, but I can at least mention what I call “the four big lies” by which we are tremendously affected, whether we can admit it or not. The first lie, or fallacy, is that any action is perfectly acceptable as long as no one gets hurt. This is the old “victimless crime” theory. The problem with this is that there is no such thing. If we commit sin, no matter how “private” someone always gets hurt. It is not okay to hurt ourselves, or God, or anyone else and sin always hurts all three. The second lie is that it is psychologically harmful to deny ourselves of anything that we want-and really, if we want something, we need it; don’t we? Therefore, if I want something, I am harming myself if I don’t act to get it. This kind of thinking is so pervasive that I actually know of multiple cases in which professional counselors tried to explain to the wives of their unfaithful clients, that they had to be unfaithful, or else they would be unhappy! The third lie is that human beings cannot overcome temptation. Therefore parents should supply their teen children with means of birth control, and provide them with “safe havens” to abuse alcohol because they would not be able to refrain from sex or beer etc. This kind of thinking denies young people of the human dignity to which they, believe it or not, want to be held. Last, but certainly not least is the lie that because we are living in modern times we need a whole new set of moral guidelines. Because things have changed so much and because we are have learned so much and have become “enlightened,” we simply can no longer abide by the antiquated values of the past. Therefore, no one can be expected to refrain from sex before marriage, and certainly we now realize that same sex marriage is to be regarded in the same way as traditional marriage. What is amazing about this one is that, while we think we are so enlightened, we are not quite enlightened enough to realize that countless cultures bought this lie before us. And guess where they are now? Well they are exactly where we will be if we also buy it-on the ash heap of history just like the Romans at the hands of the barbarians. You see, the bottom line is this: there is good, there is evil, there is right there is wrong, and they are here to stay. And human beings are always tempted to sin. But Jesus gives us the means to victory. His lesson is that we don’t have to be slaves to sin. All that we have to do is struggle to resist temptation, and when we fall we turn to Him and keep on striving-and the victory is ours. The only question is does any of this matter to us anymore?
The story of Jesus healing the leper is another one of those stories of which we are very familiar and which we have heard over and over again. And as I have said before, this can be very dangerous. Why? Because we might have a tendency to consciously or subconsciously “tune it out” as soon as recognize it because, after all, it is a “rerun.” But in so doing we cheat ourselves of the blessings and benefits of the “always new” message of the scriptures and we eliminate another opportunity for the Lord to inspire us. So let’s go. Imagine the leper. Imagine the courage he must have had to leave his leper colony, the suffering he must have endured on the way, both physically and from every encounter with another human being he had to endure before he got to where Jesus was. Imagine also, his sense of desperation. Maybe we have felt something like that before; maybe we are feeling something like that right now. But desperation is not all bad. It might be sometimes just what we need to finally bring ourselves, like the leper to the feet of Christ, where he cried out, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” St. Mark says that Jesus was ‘moved with pity.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t know of any other reality in the entire Gospel ever “moving” Jesus other than human suffering and His desire to heal it. Not war, not evil, not sin, or anything else causes Jesus to be moved-but human suffering does. We also need to understand that His desire to heal us goes much deeper than our own desire to be healed. I am sure that sometimes we have been to the doctor when we were in pain and so much wanted to be relieved of it. The doctor will do what he/she can and then tell us how we need to change our behavior so that we might not experience that pain again. At times like that we might realize that we actually are much more interested in getting rid of the pain than getting rid of some of our behaviors that might have led up to the pain. It is much the same with Jesus. He desired to heal not just the leper’s skin, but his heart and soul as well. Jesus does not only want to heal the pain that evil brings us, but the cause of that evil as well. But He will not take away our free will. We have to choose to bring ourselves to Him, despite all the very real obstacles in our way and cry out just as the leper did. And when we do, we will discover that Jesus’ desire to heal us is much more than skin deep.
Remember the shows/movies ‘Mission Impossible’ where the super hero, more recently Tom Cruise, is presented with the challenge to accept (or not) what appears to be a death sentence ‘Mission’ which against all odds if accomplished saves the ‘world’. The death defying mission is accepted but with an accompanying and concluding statement from the secret government agency stating when the going gets rough our hero and his team are on their own with no confirmation of their assignment and/or support from the agency.
Today’s gospel account has Christ saying ”Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.” Christ incarnate, became man accepting from the Father the ‘Mission’, never denied by the Father. He did all this while facing twists and turns in his short life/‘Mission’ to save the world just as Tom Cruise faced in an episode of Mission Impossible. Defying cultural past practices, turning the world upside down, proposing a change in life and facing the devil himself Christ moved forward, facing not a threat of death but death itself to save the world.
And then there is us – the apostles then, their followers. You and me today – we are presented the ‘Mission’ as you will, at Baptism, ‘Mission’ confirmed at Confirmation and never in our journey denied affiliation with the Father. Through the sacraments -- especially the Eucharist and Penance -- we are connected refreshed and strengthened during our lifelong journey. We have the ‘Mission’ to live our life in Christ. As the apostles we are commanded “go out and teach all nations”. So it follows that we too live and teach others by our very actions and words thus saving the world. As we reflect on this gospel we can do so knowing that our ‘Mission’ should we accept it (as we have the freedom of choice) is never a Mission Impossible.
I remember once as a teacher in high school I happened to be walking down one of the school hallways a few minutes after the bell to begin classes had rung and I saw a teacher standing just outside his classroom door. As I came closer, I noticed that he looked a bit distraught and then he said to me, “Father, I’m pretty much at the end of my line. I can’t do anything with this boy. He doesn’t listen to a word I say.” As I was listening to him, I saw just inside the door that there was a young man, a sophomore, standing on a chair entertaining the rest of the class. I did not know him that well as he was not in any of my classes, but I did know his name. I stepped inside the room, snapped my fingers, pointed in a downward direction and in what I thought was a rather gentle voice, said “Yo Phillip, sit down.” I spoke briefly to him and to the class about proper classroom decorum. As I was about to leave the teacher thanked me profusely for my help and said he didn’t know what he would have done if I had not passed by. As I left I found myself wondering why Phillip and his classmates listened so readily to me and would not give their teacher the time of day. I also remembered how during my first year of teaching it was very difficult for me to maintain discipline in my classroom, but that, beginning with my second year, I had very few discipline problems. It really was all about authority. The teacher I helped that day, did not have it. I did not have it my first year. But I did, at least to an extent, develop some authority as I went along. All of this helps me to recognize the authority of Jesus. What gave Him His authority? I think it has to do with the a couple realities: who He was, what He said, why He was saying it, and who He said it for. Jesus, in one of my favorite quotes says, “All this I tell you that my joy may be yours and your joy may be complete.” I think that He answers pretty much all those questions with that statement. Jesus is the Messiah who speaks the truth that is easily recognized, and spoken for the benefit of His listeners for whom He cares deeply. One of the things I learned about my students is that, whether they knew it or not, they wanted their teachers to have authority. When they recognized authority in their teachers they felt safer. The same is true with us and Jesus. His authority allows us to have peace. It truly is a beautiful thing.
I’m sure that we remember Jonah, who, although fictional, is one of my favorite biblical characters. Jonah found peace in a rather strange place- the belly of a whale. But before we chuckle, we should take a moment to reflect on the rather odd places where we have either found or have attempted to find peace, albeit a peace that was at best only temporary. You see Jonah had sinned against God. God called him to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh, but he hopped onto the first boat going in the opposite direction because Jonah hated the Ninevites. But then a great storm erupted, as storms do erupt when we try to run from God, and Jonah had himself, thrown overboard so that his shipmates might be saved. That’s where the whale enters the scene and rescues him. Inside the whale, Jonah was basically able to go on retreat: he offered praise and thanksgiving to God and repented for his disobedience. He found a kind of peace, but only for a while. But what about the Ninevites? They were still there, and they still needed to be saved, they needed to be set free of their slavery to sin. If his story ended here we would not be talking about Jonah today. After Jonah repented, the whale immediately spewed him out onto dry land and God once again called him to go to Nineveh. This time he went and the Ninevites were saved. So Jonah went off and lived happily ever after, right? Wrong!!! He cursed God and climbed the nearest mountain from where could watch the city and prayed to God to destroy the city. Remember he hated the Ninevites. Also he lamented the intense heat and thought he was going to die because of it. So God raised up for him a large plant that he used for shade and Jonah found relief-but only for a while. The plant quickly shriveled up and died and Jonah once again cursed God-this time for destroying the plant. Now this is where God steps in and teaches him a lesson. God points out to him that Jonah’s priorities were way off. He cared more about the silly plant than the thousands of Ninevites who desperately needed the message given them. So, aren’t we thankful, that we are not like Jonah since of course we have all our priorities lined up with the will of God and cheerfully live our lives accordingly?
“God has created me for some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have a mission. I may never know exactly what that mission is in this life. I shall be told it in the next. I have a part in a great work. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for nothing. I shall do good. I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, even if I do not realize what I am doing. But, if I keep His commandments, I will serve Him in my calling.”
These are not my words, although I wish they were. They are the words of John Henry Cardinal Newman who was an intellectual who lived in England from 1801-1890. His study and thought led him to convert from the Anglican Church to Catholicism. He entered the priesthood and later became a Cardinal. He has been beatified by Pope Benedict.
I have to think that the words of our Scripture passages this weekend were close to his mind and heart when he penned this quote, but even if that is not the case it certainly is true that his words are close to my mind and heart as I ponder these passages.
Like Newman’s words, the words of the readings make it clear that we are all called by the Lord and that we have an innate need to stay connected to Him and that the only way for us to experience true fulfillment is for us to find and carry out the specific purpose for which we were created.
We all have general callings and specific callings. All of us in this parish are called to serve God. But our individual calling is more specific than simply a general call to serve the Lord. We are called to serve Him in the specific vocations to which he leads us. There are young men here at St. Aloysius who are called to serve the Lord as priests or religious. There are young women here who are called to serve the Lord as religious sisters. There are many who are called to serve the Lord by faithfully living out a vocation to the married life and there are some who are called to joyfully serve the Lord in the single life.
But His call does not stop there. It’s not as if once we discern our vocations the story is over and we live happily ever after. That is just the beginning. Besides, happily ever after is so very boring. We are not finished discerning God’s will simply because we have determined that we are called to the consecrated life, the married life or the single life. We are still very much discerning the specific purpose that God has for us and pray that we are on the right track to fulfilling it.
During my father’s funeral Mass it struck me that perhaps God’s specific purpose for me was actually to gift my dad with a priest son to celebrate his passing from this life to the next. The more I thought about it I thought maybe that could actually be the case. Who’s to say what is in the mind of God? However, while I obviously don’t know for sure, I wonder if that is still the case, simply because I am still walking around on this earth. Although, I can’t say this for, sure my guess is that once we have fulfilled our purpose in life, He takes us home, but then again, what do I know? I’m just trying to continue my discernment like every one else.
So how do we discern God’s calls- from the general to the specific? I think we can take some clues from our readings and from Cardinal Newman’s words. We have to stay connected to the Lord on a very regular basis. We need to stay with Him. Remember, Samuel was sleeping in the Temple of the Lord. The two disciples stayed with the Lord that day and then stayed with Him as he walked the earth for the next three years. Because they stayed with Him their lives were changed forever. If we look at our own lives just a little bit we can see that we have a great need and desire to stay connected with our peers and with the world around us. We don’t want to miss anything. How much time do we spend on facebook, or sending and receiving text messages or checking scores etc? How hard is it for some of us to even imagine the thought of missing some game or TV show or some social event? We have a vested interest in staying super-connected. It’s as if modern means of communication have become our lifeblood.
The same needs to be true of our relationship with God. The need we have to stay connected is only a sign that points to our deep spiritual need to stay connected with God. He will not impose Himself on us but He so desires for us to bring ourselves to Him continually so that He can reveal Himself ever more deeply to us. He has so much to show to us and He doesn’t want us to miss a thing, and He knows that that is what we so much need in our lives so that we can experience fulfillment.
In addition to staying connected with the Lord through prayer, we need to study, listen to and reflect on His word in the Scriptures. The Scriptures help us to hear His words in our prayer time with Him. We also need other people to help us in our discernment. Discernment is not something that we can do on our own. While our peers and friends can be of value in this area, we do need to go beyond them and seek guidance from trusted folks who just might be a little bit more experienced in the spiritual life. The two disciples in the Gospel had John the Baptist; the boy Samuel had Eli. John the Baptist literally pointed Jesus out to the disciples; Eli told Samuel what to say when the Lord called.
“Speak, Lord for your servant is listening.” These of course, are the words that Eli gave to Samuel, but they signify much more than just words. They point to a whole disposition of openness and listening to the Lord. We can’t just simply at some arbitrary point decide that we are going to pull ourselves away from our frantic lives, shut off our ipods, smart phones or whatever, quiet ourselves down and say, “Ok, Lord, you can speak now; I’m listening.” As a matter of fact, I would daresay that when we do make time for prayer, it’s usually more like we’re saying, “Listen, Lord, for your servant is speaking,” rather than the other way around. When we pray we so often are very rushed and feel like we have to voice every need and concern and petition to Him and before you know it we’re off and on our way and God never had a chance to get a word in edgewise. And besides, God doesn’t work that way any way. He’s going to speak softly, in His time, in such a way that can only truly be heard in the context of a well nurtured relationship.
After consistently spending truly quiet time with Him for an extended period of time, we start to discover that we do in fact have a relationship with Him. We don’t so much feel the need to dominate our time with Him with our voiced prayers and petitions because we begin to realize that He knows what we need even more than we do ourselves and that He is always there for us. We gradually begin to want to simply “be” there with Him and even for Him. We start to understand that He pretty much always has a little something for us and we don’t want to miss it, we realize that He is ever so gradually inviting us into the depth of His plan for us. Eventually our disposition changes and more and more we want to serve Him because we know that is how we find our peace. Finally we find ourselves disposed like the psalmist to say “Here I am Lord, I come to do your will,” or as Samuel to say, “Speak, Lord for your servant is listening,” as a way of inviting, not commanding the Lord to reveal Himself to us.
All of this takes a great deal of time and effort, just like it takes time and effort to keep up with all of our peers etc, but we do so, because staying connected is so important to us and we don’t want to miss anything. The Lord invites us as into a life long relationship which leads us to discovering the very purpose of our creation and fulfillment in this life. And we can be sure that this is not something that we want to miss.
Over 24 years ago I met a man named Mr. Rose who was a parishioner in the first parish to which I was assigned as a priest. My guess was that he was about 45 years old but I never really knew for sure. I don’t think I ever learned his name until my second year in the parish but I had become familiar with his face almost as soon as I had arrived in the parish. He came to Mass every Sunday and attended almost every parish activity by himself. He sat in the middle of the center pew of the church, he wore one of two very similar looking suits every time I saw him, and although he was very polite I don’t know that I ever saw him engage any one in an actual conversation. If I ever encountered him personally it was after Mass while I was greeting parishioners. He would simply nod as he went by. He was intriguing because of his almost complete silence, his persistent presence and the sadness that always seemed to emanate from him. I wondered if I was ever going to get to know him and his story; and then one day he called the parish office for an appointment and wanted to see me. We met several times over the next few months. He was a single man who worked at a grocery store. He explained that he had been feeling sad ever since his mother died and he did not know how to shake it. At first I told him that it was very normal to feel sad after losing a parent and that at the very least it would probably take a full year before things would begin to feel somewhat normal again. But he explained that it had been several years and he still felt pretty much the same way. I asked him how long it was since his mother had passed and he said that it was now well over 10 years ago. I have to say that this was very surprising to me. Here was a middle aged man who had been talking to me as if his mother had died in the very recent past but now I realized that he had been in this state of malaise for over a decade and saw no way to ever change his life situation. It was as if the life he had lived had simply been dealt to him and that he had no control or even influence over it. He was an only child who had lived in the same house from the time he was born and was now living there by himself since his mother’s death. I saw, however, that he did want to rise above his sadness, and although, I did not know the answer, I hoped very much that I could help him. Then finally at one of our meetings I asked him the following question. “Mr. Rose,” I said, “have you ever done anything for anyone?” He kind of looked a bit puzzled at first, as if he wondered what my question had to do with his situation, but after a bit of a pause he said that he really could not remember any time that he extended himself to anyone. I explained to him that helping other people always tended to lift my spirits and I thought maybe it would help him as well. The rest, as they say is history. Mr. Rose agreed to help out at a local soup kitchen and became a regular there. Eventually he became very involved in the parish, and especially in any service activities. He became much more socially outgoing and his spirits rose almost exponentially. He wrote to me a couple years after I had been transferred and thanked me for the time I had shared with him and that he had come to see my question as an “epiphany,” that literally brought him to new life. You know what, folks? I think Mr. Rose’s epiphany can be an epiphany for each of us. If we ever feel like we are in a rut that we can’t get out of, there is nothing like asking ourselves what we can do for others to pick ourselves up. Isn’t that what the three wise men did? They took themselves out of their own safe little comfort zones and ended up walking differently for the rest of their lives. That’s what happened with Mr. Rose. He brought himself to new life. I’m thinkin’ it could happen to us too.
That is something that simply cannot be denied. If we love, we give and give generously from our hearts from our substance and not from our surplus. God so loved the world that He gave us His only Son. Jesus so loved us that He gave us His life totally and completely. Advent of course is a time of preparation, a time to prepare ourselves to celebrate the birth of Christ. But it is more than that; it more than getting ready for a birthday party. It is about becoming more like Him so that we might be ready to celebrate an eternity with Him in Heaven. In order to do that we need to allow ourselves to grow to become people who love and who give-like He and the Father love and give. Hopefully we all have experienced the joy that giving of ourselves brings back to us. Nothing makes me feel better than when I know that I have truly sacrificed for the good of another. When we reflect on those who we respect in life, we undoubtedly bring to mind people who have given tremendously of themselves to us. No one is ever honored for how much they have taken, but many are honored for what they have given. Yet we hold ourselves back from giving. Why? Maybe it is because we are afraid. We are afraid that we can’t give anything away because then we won’t have enough for ourselves. So we hold on to everything and become misers. And misers are miserable. Or maybe we are afraid of being taken advantage of. We are afraid that if we give something to someone they will use our gift improperly so we use that as a justification for not giving. Or maybe we simply are takers. We can only think of what we can get out of a given situation. Maybe we are somewhere in between; maybe we will give if we have a reasonable assurance that we will get something of equal value back in return. A true giver does not worry about what they may or may not get back in return. They only look to help others. Folks, that’s how we make straight the way of the Lord, by making our hearts like His. Not too long ago, I was talking like this to someone right after Mass and he said, “So Father, what you are saying is that we can buy our way into Heaven.” And I said, “No, but I do think that just maybe we can give our way in.” And there is a big difference.
I often say that for a number of reasons this month presents us with a wonderful opportunity to move into a very reflective frame of mind. The change of the seasons, the colder weather, the shorter days, the celebrations of All Saints, All Souls and Thanksgiving all come together and call us to take a closer look at our relationships with the world, with those who have gone before us, with each other and with God. Today’s Solemnity of Christ the King indeed provides us with a most fitting opportunity to bring these thoughts to a fitting conclusion. As we ponder our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God and King of the Universe we can focus on His purpose and ours. Jesus was sent by God the Father to open the gates of Heaven so that we might spend eternity in Heaven with them. Indeed, we and all those who have gone before us are or will be defined by where we are on the path to Heaven. The souls in hell are those who have refused to accept the love the grace and the mercy of God and in so doing have rejected Heaven. You might argue that you don’t believe in hell because why would a loving God create it and why would He send anyone there? The answer is that He didn’t and He doesn’t. As far as the existence of hell I certainly believe in it and I can tell you why. It’s because you can see it on earth. Just look around. We don’t have to wait until we die to choose to get there. The saints (the Church Triumphant) are those souls who are in Heaven. The souls in Purgatory (the Church Suffering) are all those souls who are experiencing a purification in order to be prepared for Heaven and who depend upon our prayers to get them there. And, finally there are all of us (the Church Militant) who are striving to conform our hearts, minds and souls to the Lord so that we might share eternity in Heaven with Him. And so, as we conclude this month and prepare to begin the beginning of another liturgical year on this Christ the King Sunday, we once again ask the question, “So, how do we get to Heaven?” Well, the short answer is that we can’t and that there is nothing that we can do to get us there. Have a good day! Just kidding; sort of. But it is the truth; we can’t do any thing to get us into heaven, at least not by ourselves, and you might say that that is bad news. But there is good news. And the Good News is that we are not alone. God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, the King of the Universe, to us to make it