When someone loses a job, Jesus says to them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” When someone learns that he, she or someone they love has a serious illness, Jesus says to them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” When someone faces persecution, Jesus says to them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” When someone we love dies, Jesus says to us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Whenever our hearts are troubled in any way, Jesus says to us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” When we are in the midst of pain, sorrow, distress, injustice and grief, etc. it might seem odd that Jesus would say these words to us, but it is precisely those times that He does so. It is when we are in turmoil that we most need to hear those words from Him. He speaks them to us when we are troubled not because He is out of touch with how we feel, but because He is very much in touch with our pain. When He tells us to not let our hearts be troubled, He is letting us know that He understands our pain even more than we do and that He is right there beside us. He is telling us that the pain we feel at any given moment is just that; a moment in which He asks us to embrace with Him. He is with us always. When He says those words to us, he is inviting us, commanding us, enabling us, empowering us to gradually move through and overcome the pain and walk with Him to a place of peace. He is letting us know that when we reach out to His extended hands, we have the power and the grace to bear whatever cross and whatever pain might be in our midst. Whenever we are suffering, we need to allow ourselves to hear Jesus speaking those words to us; we must allow them to become a mantra in our hearts. If we do we will be able to bear the crosses that come our way with the full knowledge that we are not alone and that Jesus is leading us to the house of His Father and our Father so that where Jesus is we also may be.
If we lived in Israel at the time of Jesus, we would instantly relate to what Jesus told us today in the Gospel. Sheep were the people’s main source of meat, milk and cheese. They provided wool for clothing. And they were regularly used for sacrifice in their liturgy.
If I were to try to think of something in our culture today that would be similar to the relationship of a shepherd to his sheep, the best comparison I can come up with is a mother who needs to care for several toddlers. Just as toddlers depend on their mother’s care, the sheep depend on the care of their shepherd, and the shepherd, who usually, had dozens of sheep, is kept busy all hours of every day.
Today’s gospel makes reference to an activity that was part of the shepherd’s daily routine. Each night, a number of shepherds would come together with their sheep and put them in a common pen. Then they would sleep as one shepherd would stay awake to guard against thieves or predatory animals. In the morning, each shepherd would call out for his own sheep to follow him to pasture. The sheep knew the voice of their own shepherd and would follow only his voice when they were called, and would ignore the calls of the other shepherds. Remember, Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me.”
Some people are offended to hear themselves compared to sheep. Maybe that’s because they don’t realize they need God’s constant care at all times and not just when they become aware that they have problems or are in need.
We live in a society where everyone is trying to get our attention. We constantly are bombarded with commercials on radio, TV, internet, social media, as well with all kinds of signs, posters and billboards all over highways, streets and buildings trying to catch our eye. Sometimes, we have a tendency to simply follow the latest message we’ve heard, or sometimes, because we hear so many messages, we might be tempted to just follow the crowd. However, if we want to follow Jesus, we have to be able to hear and to recognize His voice, from among the many that are competing for our attention. We have to make a conscious effort to shut out all kinds of noises so that we can listen to Him. If we don’t do so, we can easily lose touch with Him. We need to take time to be quiet, to be still, to pray, so that we can stay in touch with the Good Shepherd.
Our Lord does not want to lose any of us. He wants us to be with Him forever. He wants to wipe every tear from our eyes. He leads us through the Eucharist we celebrate each day and each week. He speaks to us in the Scriptures and He feeds us with His own body and blood. Sheep may not be the most intelligent creatures, but they are smart enough to know that they need their shepherd and to recognize his voice. May we also be intelligent enough to know that we need Jesus and smart enough to recognize His voice so that He might lead us to the eternal pasture of Heaven.
I am sure that we remember the words that Jesus spoke to Thomas last week. He said to him “…do not be unbelieving, but believe.” We might see today’s Gospel, the story of the Road to Emmaus as a continuation of the Doubting Thomas story. In the Emmaus story Jesus says to the two disciples, “Oh, how foolish you are, how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke.” During this Easter season Jesus makes many apparitions. But these apparitions have a very basic purpose. As my Mom would say, they are “not for nothin’.” With each apparition He commands His followers to believe.
He demands belief. He doesn’t beg for it. He doesn’t merely suggest it. He doesn’t stop at the level of invitation. He demands it. Unbelief frustrates Him. This may seem a bit odd to us, because we humans are probably more comfortable with the idea that Jesus has to present His case to us, and then we will decide whether or not to believe in Him. However Jesus doesn’t see things the way we do. Surprise, surprise! He does not to earn or merit or belief. Actually, He judges us based on whether or not we believe. We don’t get to put Him through hoops; if anything, it is the other way around. He is always there for us, but still we doubt. While it is true that He does not force any one to believe, italso is true that He always has the last word. He always did and always will. He has the last word over Thomas, He has the last word over the Apostles, He has the last word over death and He has the last word over us. Once we realize this, that He has the last word, and that it is good for us that He has the last word and that we believing is something that He commands us to do, it will go much better for us in this life—and the next.
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 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 there 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 and New Purpose. Amazingly and Unbelievably… Are your doors locked? They 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 past 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 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, 2017! 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 St. Aloysius Parish you will have ample opportunity to do just that. Of course, we will began 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 daily Mass at 8:00AM on Monday or 6:30AM on Tuesday or Wednesday, 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 and Wednesday evenings at 6:30PM to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Please note that this is your last chance to receive the sacrament before Easter. Then on Tuesday evening at 6:30PM in church our seventh and eighth grade students 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 7:00PM. 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 wherethe Sacred Heart statue now stands. As the Triduum continues we will commemorate Christ’s passion and deathwith the celebration of Morning Prayer on Good Friday. Adoration will continue throughout the day until our Celebration of the Lord’s Passion at 3:00PM. 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 once again in the barren church. Immediately following morning prayer, at 8:30AM, 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 7:42PM 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 the Gospel Jesus brings to the light how important it is to make sure that the physical is in line with the spiritual. The theme that runs throughout is that we human beings can suffer from both spiritual and physical blindness. Jesus’ point of course is that both are indeed very important but although we may not be physically blind, that doesn’t mean that we enjoy spiritual sight. Spiritual blindness means not being able to see clearly as Jesus sees, as God sees, for they see reality as it is. The Pharisees could not see what was right in front of their faces; that Jesus had healed a man who had been blind from birth. Jesus also makes it clear that both the physical and spiritual dimensions of a person are very important by the very fact that He heals this man. However, while Jesus heals the physical dimension the spiritual dimension is much more our domain because it involves our free will and ability to choose and Jesus will not impinge upon that. At the end of the story Jesus says to the Pharisees and to us, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind," but then they responded, "Surely we are not blind, are we?" Jesus goes on to say, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains." This is a sobering exchange, is it not? Basically He is saying to them and to us, that as long as we sin, we are blind. If we could truly “see,” in the fullest sense of the word, we would never sin; sinfulness would have no place in our hearts. What’s worse is that many of us cannot see that we cannot see. We have so lost a sense of what sin is that we don’t even realize when we commit sin. Many times in confession people will say that they really don’t have any sins, but they want the grace of the sacrament? Really? The first step to sight, as Jesus speaks of it, is to be able to see that we are sinners who need the forgiveness of Jesus. Beyond that, it is only when we truly stop sinning can we say that we can see.
I think that this story that we know as “The Woman at the Well,” could just as easily be entitled “The Messiah at the Well” because it is truly more about what Jesus did at the well than what the woman did. After all, the woman was probably there virtually every day, while Jesus, as far as we know, was only there this one time. So, what did Jesus do? Well, He crossed boundaries, big time. (I can’t help but wonder what Jesus would think about our “over-boundary” conscious world of today.) He sent His disciples off so that He was by Himself. Was He asking for trouble? He had to know that there was a fair chance that a Samaritan woman would come by to draw water from the well. He knew that it was not kosher for a man to be with a woman alone in broad daylight; let alone a Samaritan woman! And when such a woman did indeed come along, what did He do? He engaged her in conversation and even asked her for a drink! Why did He behave in such a way, a way that He had to know would have been seen as imprudent? I think that the very simple answer is that He was, as He shared with the woman, thirsty. He was thirsty for souls. At this point He was thirsty for the souls of the Samaritans. He was determined to make a connection, even if He had to break a number of behavioral norms. Perhaps He felt as though, He had been preaching to His own people, and even to His disciples, without the success, without the response He was looking for. Now He was in Samaritan territory and He was not going to pass through it without taking a shot at winning their souls. We, because of original sin, political correctness, etc., etc., are literally held bound by all kinds of social norms, but the Lord is not. One of the lessons in the story of “The Messiah at the Well” is that when it comes to winning our souls, He has never ending thirst and that He will not be prevented by any boundary from quenching it.
We are all very familiar with the story of the Transfiguration and that could be a problem. The fact that it is so familiar might prevent us from hearing it anew as it is proclaimed over and over again. We might tend to “click it off” and let our minds wander, since we feel like we know it through and through. We live in a world of sound bytes, text messaging, and web and channel surfing. Everything and everyone gets about 3 seconds of our time, because, if someone or something is too familiar to us we feel like we have “been there” and “done that” and immediately want to move on because there are so many other people to see and things to do. This extremely worldly pattern of behavior does not sit well with pondering Sacred Scripture. Scripture really does not lend itself to being packaged as a sound byte. It is meant to be studied, prayed and reflected upon. It is always new, but we have to spend time with it in order to realize that the insights it gives us are never ending and always fresh. For instance, with the story of the Transfiguration, if we spend time with it, we just might come to see that it is much more than a story explaining how Jesus’ clothes turned dazzlingly white one day. We might come to see that it is as story that shows us that if we spend time with Jesus, as Peter, James and John did, we just might receive a wonderful gift. We might just be given the opportunity, if but for a brief moment, to see Jesus as His Father sees Him. Of course, to see Jesus as the Father sees Him is to see Him as He truly is. Now, wouldn’t that be something? But there’s more. What if we could see everyone and everything with the Father’s eyes -our loved ones; and our not so loved ones? Don’t you think your life would be different if you could see as the Father sees-if you could see God’s world and His people as they truly are? The message of the Transfiguration is that you can do just that, that you can see as the Father sees, but in order to do so you have to go to the mountaintop with Jesus in prayer in order to do it. And you can’t be too fast with the clicker.
Feeling more temptation than usual? ‘Tis the season, and here’s how to recognize and respond to it:
The Lord said to satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on him.” - Job 1:12
Have you experienced any of these temptations this Lent?
1. The Temptation to Distraction
Lent can very quickly become about doing way too many things or nothing at all. The devil wants us to either drown in penances or feel discouraged right away and give up. The thing is that Lent should be about God, not our activities, as well-intentioned as they may be. It is better to ask God to help us focus on one key thing during Lent, and then despite our failures, ask Him for the grace to persevere.
2. The Temptation
If we are naturally more disciplined or strong-willed than those around us, there is a temptation to spend Lent patting ourselves on the back and comparing ourselves favorably to others. This is exactly what the devil wants. He wants us to think we are better than other people and to grow in pride, which is precisely what we should repent of during Lent. If we have this tendency, or are experiencing it this Lent, the best antidote is to choose a penance that is absolutely impossible to achieve perfectly and that challenges our tendency toward pride. This helps us to realize that Lent is not about being perfect, type– A, judgers. It is about realizing that even with the natural gifts that God has given us, we are still sinful and very much in need of grace.
3. The Temptation to Self-Improvement
Lent can very quickly become only about losing weight or ending some bad habit that has become an irritation in our lives, rather than growing close to God. And the devil would love for Lent to be all about us. But this is not what Lent is about. As Father Anthony Gerber pointed out in an excellent post on this subject; “Lent is...about failing miserably, about you reaching that third week of doing the difficult, of choosing the nails and thorns of love...But then denying Jesus for a few pieces of silver, of comfort, of selfish, selfish self-love. And in that moment, you’re going to be brought to your knees and you’re going to lift your arms to the heavens and say, “Lord, I cannot do this by myself! Lord, help me! I’m so bad at love!” We are usually good at loving ourselves, and bad at loving others. This is why it’s important to choose penances that will help us to grow in selfless love.
4. The Temptation to Division
Division is one of the devil’s favorite tools in his toolbox. He just loves to get between Christians and cause rivalries, confusion, jealousies, anger and paranoia. The devil wants us to look at other Christians and see the enemy rather than recognizing that the only real enemy among us is the devil (and ourselves when we let him work on us).
So of course, during Lent the devil may try to incite division among Christians in our homes, in our parishes, and even online. If you read material online from various sources, a good question during Lent (and really at any time) would be: “ Does this material help me to love my fellow Christians more, or does it lead to division?”
Recently deceased Supreme Court justice and faithful Catholic, Antonin Scalia, once said: “I attack ideas. I don’t attack people.” This is a sign of character. And it is a distinction that is increasingly lost in our society. If what you are reading or writing online focuses on attacking people rather than working for unity in Christian love, it may be the tool of the devil to keep you (and others) from growing in the spiritual life.
5. The Temptation to Discouragement
The devil likes nothing more than to make us as miserable as he is. And he knows that if we are feeling discouraged we are likely to be less cooperative with God’s grace. So, during Lent the devil can tempt us to feel like giving up on living the penitential spirit of the season. He can make us feel like we are constantly failing and just no good at this. The thing is– no one is “good” at Lent. If you think you are, you are not choosing the right penances. So, when we feel discouraged, it is an opportunity to thank God with loud shouts of joy for saving us from our mediocrity and sin. It makes no sense to be lost in discouragement if we really believe the Gospel message. Even in Lent, we know that Jesus has died, yes, but He has also risen, and joy and grace is available now for us to be transformed. And thank God for that!
Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP, is the author of the Prodigal You Love: Inviting Loved One Back to the Church. She recently pronounced her fist vows with the Daughters of Saint Paul.
Jesus says to us “Seek and you will find,” “Ask and you will receive,” and “Knock and the door shall be opened unto you.” We, as the good people we strive to be, very much want to believe His words, but we all can come to remember situations in our lives in which we have sought, but have not found, have asked, but have not received, and have knocked without finding an open door. So how do we reconcile His words with our faith? Certainly we believe whatever Jesus says, but we might have some trouble understanding them when we match them up with our experience. Jesus also tells us that we have a Father who very much wants to say yes to His children. Jesus gives us the example of a human father who very much wants to give good things to his children and explains that if we want so much to give our children good things, even though we are so imperfect, than how much more must our heavenly Father want to give good things to us? But then why is it that we pray for things and not receive them? Perhaps we can look to what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel. He says, “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” Basically He is saying that we will either choose ultimately to conform ourselves to the selfishness of the world or to our Father in Heaven. What happens with us is that we continually find ourselves torn between our own desires and the desires of God. God wants those things that are good for us and wants always to say “yes” to us but, for own good, will not say “yes” to those things that are not for our good, even though, they may look nice and shiny to us. What parent would quickly run to pull a nice shiny sharp object from the reach of his/her toddler, even though this will cause the little one to cry? That is how God is with us. He wants so much to say “yes” to us but in order for Him to be able to do that means that we need to conform our hearts and minds and wills to His so that we are truly able to seek first the Kingdom of God. Once we can do that, than all the abundant blessings of our Heavenly Father will be added unto us.
“When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.” You’ll probably never guess who these words of Jesus remind me of, but I do think a number of you (especially Eagles’ fans) will remember him once I say his name. Well, they remind me of Ty Detmer, a quarterback who played for the Eagles for a short time in the 1990s. You might remember also, his younger brother Koy, who was a third string QB for the Eagles for several years up until about 10 years ago. Anyway, Ty was a fill in for a short time for Randall Cunningham. And he did make quite a splash for several weeks. He defied the experts who said he was too short to be a successful NFL quarterback for a few weeks winning (I think!) 5 games in a row. But then, reality set in. His short stature prevented him from seeing over the opposing defensive lines and his passes, which somehow evaded the hands of the defenders for the first several games evaded them no more. It got ugly, real fast. Just like that, he almost could not complete a pass, let alone be competitive in a game. It all came to a climax during Monday Night Football game against, who else, the Dallas Cowboys. Ty had beaten them in his previous meeting, but not this time. In one series he was sacked on three successive plays. I forget the score (I know we lost by a lot) but what I do remember is the words of a Dallas defensive linemen which were spoken about Ty after the game. He said that at the end of one of those sacks, as he was literally laying on top of Ty, he said to him, “Rookie, I hope you’re ready for this because we will be coming every play.” Ty’s response was very simple. He said, “I’ll be here.” I remember this because I think it gives us a glimpse into what Jesus means when he talks about turning the other cheek. It’s not about weakness, it’s about strength, it’s about being there, it’s about choosing not to make the same kind of choice that everyone else makes. Isn’t that what Jesus did? Isn’t his death on the cross the ultimate turning of the other cheek? Isn’t it the ultimate statement of what it means to be there and not being like everyone else? Remember, Jesus consistently teaches us that we are not to think and behave like the rest of the world does. We are called to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.
These words, taken from today’s first reading from the book of Sirach, give me reason to pause. They also remind me of similar verses that can be found in Scripture. For example, in Deuteronomy, chapter 30 verse 19 we find these words: “…I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live…” In Joshua chapter 24 verse 15, we find these words: “…choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve,…as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD…” (This verse is particularly meaningful to me, because it always reminds me of my father, and I chose this passage from Joshua to be proclaimed at his funeral Mass.) So, at least in my mind any way, there does seem to be a theme running through scripture which has found its way into our Sunday Lectionary today. Within this theme are the ideas of free will, life and death, and serving the Lord. And remember this, for the ancient Hebrews, life, by definition, was that precisely which proceeded from loving and obeying God. Therefore, if we choose to serve God, we are choosing life. Death was defined as the rejection of God. Therefore, if we choose not to serve or obey the Lord, we choose death. But we need to understand that our choices affect not only eternity-they affect today as well. If I want to live today, it means that I choose to serve the Lord today. If I choose not to serve the Lord today, it means that for today I have not chosen life; I have chosen something else, and what follows from that choice will not be the life that comes from God but something else, i.e. isolation from Him- which is the same as death. Remember, what we choose will be given to us, so let’s be sure to choose to serve the Lord and not some other god, let’s be sure to choose life, so that we will live today and throughout all eternity with the Lord.
These words, of course, are part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He spoke these words, remember, to the poor, the outcast, to those who were mourning, to the persecuted, etc. He told them that they were blessed and that the kingdom of heaven belonged to such as them. And then He told them that they were salt and light. Now even today, 2000 years after He spoke these words we still appreciate salt and light as valuable commodities. However, I think that we have no idea just how valuable salt and light were to the people of Jesus’ time. To them, salt was not just something that improved the flavor of food. It also preserved it. Without salt, food would spoil and people would have nothing to eat. Salt was so valuable that it was used as salary for Roman soldiers. Even today, we need to realize that we can survive without gold but we cannot survive without salt. Today we have all kinds of light all around us and at our finger tips. In Jesus’ time people literally lived in darkness. Again, try to imagine, how these lowliest of people must have felt when they heard Jesus’ words and know that He is saying them to us as well. It is truly amazing that the Lord sees us as blessed, as salt and as light. Notice that He does not say, “You are like salt and light,” or “You should strive to become, like salt and light.” No, He says, “You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.” He makes a definitive statement. But, then, the more I think about it, the more it sounds like to me that He is giving us a command, more than He is making a statement. He is commanding us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He is charging us to be everything that salt and light was to the people of His time. And this we must do during this season of Ordinary Time so that our light will shine brightly before others and that they may give glory to God.
It is good for us, while we are still in the early weeks of the season of Ordinary Time (or, as I like to call it, the “season of real life”) to contemplate and reflect on the Beatitudes, which we hear today from the Gospel of St. Matthew, since of course they are the centerpiece of Jesus’ teaching for us and for all people of all time. If we read them with fresh eyes, listen to them with fresh ears, and receive them with a newly opened mind and heart, we will indeed be better able to live these days of Ordinary Time in an extraordinarily good way. First, it is probably good for us to remember the context in which they were given and to whom they were spoken. The crowd to which Jesus spoke was made up precisely of those who were poor, who were suffering, who were mourning, who were persecuted, who were hungering and thirsting for justice, etc. and He told them that they were blessed for heaven would be theirs. Imagine what His words must have felt like to people who were seen and treated as the outcasts of society and realize that in hearing them we should feel the same way. However, He is not saying that we should strive to be financially poor, or to be in a state of mourning or that we should want to be persecuted. He is saying that if we are wealthy by worldly standards, if we are not hungering for Him, if it does not sadden us if our loved ones are not following Him, and if the world thinks well of us, than we face the ominous peril of being cursed to an eternity without Him because we perceive no need of Him. However, if we recognize our dependence on Him, and not for the things of the world, if we hunger for His justice and mercy, if we mourn for those who do not realize their dependence on the Lord or hunger for His kingdom, and if we stand up for the kingdom in the face of persecution than we are truly blessed. Why? Because if we live as people who are fully aware of our need for Him, of our true poverty, than the kingdom of heaven is indeed ours.
Brothers and sisters, the Christmas decorations are no more. They have been removed. Our Church and our Gathering Center are set for the new season in which we find ourselves-the season of Ordinary Time. It is good for us at this moment to pause and reflect upon the Advent/Christmas season which has just moved into our very recent memory so that we might give it a proper sendoff before we dive into the days which are now upon us. In my own estimation at least-and I admit that I am a bit partial in this regard-we, as a parish have lived the Advent/Christmas season very well. For me, the time that we have shared together especially since Thanksgiving has been truly remarkable. I have seen and experienced so much goodness and good cheer, energy and enthusiasm from you throughout the entire season. These days have been a joy for me and I sense a wonderful spirit from all of you. It is so good to be here! We have truly lived the Christmas season well, but I also think the season was good for us. I think, that at least in part, because we have engaged the season so well, we are now ready to engage the season of Ordinary Time, or as I like to refer to it, the “season of real life.” In this season, we have struggles with which to deal, we have joys and sorrows to share. We have lives to live. And that’s what it’s all about. The same is true of us as Saint Aloysius Parish. We have struggles with which we have to deal-our parish finances, and our parish debt, just to name a couple, but we also have a wonderful faith life to live. For 2017, I see many exciting adventures ahead, with our school relocation project perhaps at the top of the list. I also would like to think that we as a parish community will take more ownership of our personal call to discipleship and that we will do so in an intentional way. I see us becoming more and more a parish of prayer, service, Eucharistic adoration, and community. I see us continuing to engaging our young people into the life of the parish and speaking openly to them about religious vocations and on and on. So, my brothers and sisters, let’s put the Christmas season to rest with a smile and let’s move on to live the “season of real life,” otherwise known as the season of Ordinary Time, extraordinarily well.
I once heard a homily on the radio that was given by a Baptist preacher. He was very enthusiastically speaking about the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. He was focusing on the verse in which it says that the angel knocked Jacob’s hip socket out of joint and because of that he would walk with a limp for the rest of his life. His point was that, because of His encounter with the Lord, Jacob literally walked differently than he did before. He said that if any one truly had an encounter with the Lord, than pretty much necessarily, they would walk a different way after their encounter with the Lord than they did before. He also said that this is something that could not be feigned or pretended. He challenged his congregation to go ahead and try to change the way they walked. His point was that it was nearly impossible to do, unless we have truly been changed by the Lord. And so on this Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord we celebrate the fact that the Magi visited the infant Jesus as a sign that His birth was a gift to all people and not just the Israelites. Indeed this is a wonderful message for all of us. But what strikes me is that they returned to their home country “by another way.” They did not return home the same way that they came. Their encounter with Jesus changed them. So what about us? We also bring ourselves to visit the infant Jesus. Perhaps like the Magi, we even bring Him gifts rather than simply looking for something for ourselves. But are we going to leave Church the same way we came? Are we going to walk out in exactly the same way that we came in or are we going to return home “by another way.” If we do not leave somehow differently, somehow changed, than when we came, than I think it is fair to question whether we had a true encounter with Christ. Of course, it does take two to have an encounter-but you can count on this; Jesus is truly here. The only question is are we?
I know I have said this many times before but St. Luke’s words in today’s Gospel passage proclaimed for the celebration of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God are among my favorite in all of scripture. As part of his description of all the wonderful events surrounding the birth of Jesus, he says that Mary “treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” These words, I think we can all agree, express a beautiful sentiment. However, I believe we are making a significant error if we cannot see them as much more than merely sentimental. To me, they are extremely valuable words of advice that, if we are wise, will apply to our own lives. We all know that Mary would go on to witness the terrible passion and death of this same Jesus that she held in her arms as she pondered the great mystery of the nativity. It is my contention that had she not made a conscious decision to “ponder them in heart,” she may not have been able to withstand the prophesied sword that did indeed pierce her heart. The same is true for each of us. As people of faith, we believe that God has a plan for us and is leading us according to that plan each and every day. And each day He prepares us little by little for what is to come. Therefore, it is essential for us, like it was for our Blessed Mother, to take the time and make the conscious choice to treasure all the gifts and blessings that He bestows upon us along the way, so that we might draw upon them in the future to offer Him fitting glory, thanks and praise. If we don’t take the time to place God’s blessings in our hearts as He gives them to us we will not be as equipped for the future as God intended us to be. I don’t know about you, but this seems like a perfect New Year’s resolution to me.
At the very end of the Gospel passage that is proclaimed on Christmas Day, we hear this phrase from St. John, “And the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us, and we saw His glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” Full of grace and truth; Jesus was, Jesus is, full of grace and truth. His Gift to us, God the Father’s gift to us in the person of His Son is the fullness of Grace and Truth. Grace is favor, grace is help, Grace is God’s favor, it is God’s help. It is a free gift. It is unmerited, it cannot be earned and we can either take it or leave it. Grace is the teacher staying after school to help a student succeed. It is the employer helping the employee to learn a new skill or helping to place him at a different position where he has a better chance to succeed. Truth is reality. It is what is; like it or not. It can be sought or learned, but it cannot be changed, at least not easily. It can be confusing, and not always easy for us to see especially when we refer to the truth regarding ourselves. It can be very painful, but it also can be especially beautiful, liberating and even transformative. Grace asks the question does it help or does it heal. Truth asks is it real, or is it not real. Truth can lead us to the conclusion that everything is not Ok. It can lead to the awareness of sin. Grace and truth are most definitely related and interrelated. Truth leads to grace. Grace insists on truth. Jesus brought the fullness of grace and truth to every interaction that He ever had in His life. He always led individuals to face the reality of the situation in which they found themselves but at the same time gave them the comfort of His saving grace. He forgave the adulterous woman of her sin and saved her from those about to stone her but commanded her to go and sin no more. When the rich young man approached Him and asked Him what he had to do to get to heaven, Jesus looked at him and loved him-but then challenged him to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. When His disciples were being tossed about and frightened by the stormy sea, He first quieted the sea and then scolded His disciples for their lack of faith. Jesus never brought either grace or truth; He always brought both grace and truth. We human beings tend to either favor one or the other. Those of us who tend to favor truth might be in fact very much correct but not very helpful. In fact, we might even use truth as a weapon. Those of us who favor grace might overlook offensive behavior to the detriment of one’s own self or others. If we take grace or truth away from a situation the results will be unfortunate; they will not be what God intended. If however we bring both grace and truth we help ourselves and others to be more healthy, more productive, more attractive and more at peace. In fact, the combination of grace and truth is absolutely irresistible. Maybe we have experienced it with some of our peers. That’s what attracted people to Jesus 2000 years ago, even as a babe in a manger.
In today’s Gospel, the angel commands Joseph to “Be not afraid” to take Mary into his home as his wife because it was through the Holy Spirit that the child had conceived. An angel told Mary to “Be not afraid” as she was about to become the mother of Jesus. God told Abraham to not be afraid as he left the land of his forefathers to go to “a land that the Lord would show him.” He told Moses to not be afraid as He was sending him to speak to Pharaoh on behalf of the enslaved Israelites. He told Joshua to not be afraid to lead his people into the Promised Land. Throughout the Old Testament, there are countless examples of the Lord exhorting prophets, heroes and heroines, and the people as a whole to “Be not afraid,” as they faced all kinds of obstacles and challenges. In the New Testament, we find Jesus pretty much doing the same thing. Time and time again, He commanded the people to whom He was ministering to “Be not afraid.” As a matter fact, the phrase “be not afraid” is the most common phrase found in the Old Testament. It is also the most common phrase found in the New Testament. We are commanded to “be not afraid,” many more times than we are commanded to love one another. Certainly we need to consider this fact as we ponder the Lord’s message to us. He understands us as beings who are very much fearful of the unknown. He knows that we must overcome our fear if we are to fulfill the mission He has given us and find true peace. He knows that if we do not face our fears we will not be able to truly love ourselves, others or Him. We might say that He understands that living in fear is not living at all. And so, at least partially in order to help us conquer fear once and for all, He sends to us His son as a babe in swaddling clothes in a manger. So my dear friends, “Be not afraid!” That is the message of this Fourth Sunday of Advent and of the Lord throughout salvation history.