Thursday, April 24, 2014

Easter Thursday

“Peace be with you” are words we share at Mass.However, this is not just a specifically Catholic form of greeting, and it’s more than a simple expression of best wishes. Instead, this peace is a real gift- a gift that only Jesus can give. In today’s gospel, Jesus gave this peace to his friends when he appeared to them on Easter. Jesus extends this same peace to us at Mass, and invites us to share it with each other.

When Jesus offered his peace to his friends, the wounds of his Passion- the marks of the nails in his hands and feet- were plainly visible for all to see. We know, therefore, that a life touched by his peace is not necessarily free from conflict and pain.

Instead, we might best understand this peace as the peace of heart, and the peace of mind, that comes with the assurance that Jesus is always present with us. It’s the peace of knowing that in the midst of life’s ups and downs, the risen Lord is always at our side-offering us consolation, guidance, and challenge; instilling gratitude, joy, and wisdom; filling us with faith, hope, and charity; calling us to conversion and forgiveness; and strengthening us to carry our cross. With this peace comes an assurance that the Lord will always provide, that his love will never fail, and that the risen life he promises us, will never come to an end.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Tuesday of Easter Week

A beautiful love story lies at the heart of today’s Easter gospel. In a subtle way, the evangelist has portrayed Mary Magdalene as the woman lover in the Old Testament’s Song of Songs.

This lover searches for her beloved in the night, just as Mary Magdalene went to the tomb before the sun had risen. The lover asks the city watchmen if they had seen her beloved, just as Mary Magdalene laments to the angels keeping watch that she doesn’t know where Jesus is to be found. As it was in a secret garden that the lover would meet her beloved, so Mary Magdalene first mistook Jesus for a gardener. And finally, when the lover finally discovered her beloved she took hold of him and refused to let go, just as Mary Magdalene clung to Jesus, after he revealed himself to her.

Mary Magdalene’s deep love for Jesus gave her the courage to overcome the doubts and fears that seemed to paralyze the disciples after the crucifixion. As a reward for her courageous love, Jesus appeared to her first and appointed her the messenger to tell the others the good news of the resurrection. Because of this, she has been honored throughout history as the “Apostle to the Apostles.”

Mary Magdalene’s courageous love is an inspiration and example for us, because so often we need courage in order to be a follower of Jesus. For instance:

• We need courage to trust God, when we can’t see the road ahead of us;

• We need courage to confess our sins when our shame would hold us back;

• We need courage to witness to our faith in the face of injustice and ridicule;

• We need courage to love others when we risk being rejected by them;

• We need courage to forgive, when we’re afraid of appearing weak;

• And we need courage to grow in holiness, when we fear the change that growth requires.

Mary Magdalene serves to remind us that perfect love casts out fear, because we love a Lord whose love for us conquered not only fear, but even death itself.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Monday in Easter Week

Mary and Martha were close friends of Jesus. He once raised their brother Lazarus from the dead! Another time, during a meal together, Martha complained that Mary sat listening to Jesus speak while she was busy serving. Jesus had to gently explain to her that, on this occasion, Mary had made the better choice. Today’s gospel finds Martha serving once again, while Mary worships Jesus by anointing his feet with oil.

We who also wish to be friends of Jesus should look closely at Mary and Martha’s example. Martha shows us that friends of Jesus are servants. They serve their Lord, each other, and especially the needy and poor. Mary reminds us of the importance of prayer and worship. You and I would do well to combine the virtues of Mary and Martha, by finding a balance between prayer, worship, and service.

Prayer and worship without service can become hollow flattery. Service without prayer and worship can become misguided, self-serving, or lead to burn out. Just consider Mother Teresa. Without question, she was one of God’s great servants. But how did she do it? “My secret is simple,” she said, “I pray.”

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Wednesday in Holy Week

What was it that motivated Judas to betray Jesus? Was he trying to force Jesus to display his divine powers against his enemies? Maybe he was resentful that he hadn’t been chosen as leader of the apostles. Or perhaps he was simply malicious and greedy. We just don’t know.

What we do know is that, when all was said and done, Judas was overwhelmed by bitter regret. He tried to return his blood money, and ended his life in suicide.

Suicide is always a tragedy. But the greater tragedy here is that Judas had lost hope. In his despair, Judas lost hope in receiving mercy from the one whose entire life conveyed hope and mercy. We can say with absolute confidence that if Judas has run to the foot of the cross and begged forgiveness, he would have received it.

In a way, Judas represents the state of many people today- people who live lives of quiet despair, shame, and fear, because they believe themselves to be unlovable and unforgivable in the eyes of God.

But such fear is a self-inflicted wound. The good news of Holy week is that no one should despair of God’s mercy and forgiveness. Not Judas Iscariot. Not you or me.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tuesday of Holy Week

"Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night," tradition claims, will keep mail carriers from completing their rounds. To complete his mission of redemption and salvation, Jesus had to contend with much worse than that, as today’s gospel reminds us. Darkness, denial, ignorance, betrayal, cowardice, and the demonic all confronted Jesus at the Last Supper, on the eve of his passion. Yet Jesus pressed on, in spite of it all, demonstrating that his love for us, and his desire to save us, will never fail.
Jesus’ love is resolute. He would never force himself upon us, but he doesn’t keep a polite distance either. Instead, he keeps knocking at the door of our hearts. Sometimes we open our hearts to him on our own, and welcome him in. At other times, we need his help. Maybe our hearts are frozen, and Jesus needs to melt them; it could be that our hearts are broken, and Jesus needs to mend them; perhaps our hearts are made of stone, and they need replacing with Jesus’ own, sacred heart.

Regardless of the state of our heart, Jesus persists in his efforts to open its door, not to assert his power, but to share his love. Nothing will stop him! Not even death itself.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Passion (Palm) Sunday

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, nearly 20 years ago, appeared together in a comedy called Joe Versus the Volcano. Tom Hanks’ character, Joe Banks, is diagnosed by an unscrupulous doctor as having a “brain cloud,” an incurable illness that will painlessly kill him in 6 months. Soon afterward, a desperate businessman in cahoots with the doctor offers Joe Banks a deal. His company needs a special mineral found only on the tiny Pacific island of Waponi Woo. The island’s inhabitants, however, won’t let him mine the mineral unless he helps them find someone to jump into the island’s volcano, whose god demands a human sacrifice once every hundred years.  The businessman offers to bankroll Joe Banks’ final months so he can live them in luxury. For his part, Banks has to jump into the volcano at the end. Banks agrees. But then he falls in love with Meg Ryan, the crooked scheme is uncovered, and there’s a happy ending. Of course!

            This is an intentionally silly move. But its premise of an angry god who demands human sacrifice reflects a very real fear encountered throughout history and around the globe. Many people have believed, and still believe, that the gods are angry and that they’d better be kept happy, or else. Sometimes this involved human sacrifice. Sometimes it didn’t. Nevertheless, “Every day is an audition” with these gods, whose potential for anger and retaliation keeps everyone walking around on eggshells.

            Even we Christians can sometimes think this way about God. More often than not, this happens when we confuse the way God acts with the way some of the people around us act. We encounter bossy, demanding, controlling, abusive, manipulative people and, consciously or unconsciously, we conclude that God must be like this too. We end up confusing the God revealed to us in Jesus, with the volcano god of Waponi Woo.

            Sometimes the confusion starts with our parents. Some never “spare the rod,” creating fear and anxiety in their children. Others are overly-demanding. Their children try and try to gain their approval and affection, but these never come or are only grudgingly given. Children conclude that love and acceptance are things to be earned, instead of being freely given.

            Angry spouses and significant others who yell, threaten, berate, and manipulate add to the confusion as well. Sometimes they don’t even need to raise their voice. Just the threat of an outburst is enough to keep the other person in line. The typical response by victims of this behavior is not love, but self-preservation.

            Then there are bad bosses whose employees worry about the next tirade, or receiving a “pink slip.” Film producer Scott Rudin has fired over 250 personal assistants, one of whom simply brought him the wrong breakfast muffin. But he’s not the only one; 44% of Americans claim to have worked for an abusive boss.

            Repressive governments who use threat and force to maintain power are also to blame for confusion about God. Such governments would happily agree with Machiavelli, who in The Prince famously asserted that it’s better for rulers to be feared than to be loved.

            Not only tyrannical rulers, but also parents, spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends, bosses and others who control, manipulate, threaten, abuse, and make unreasonable demands are generally feared instead of loved. Like the volcano god of Waponi Woo, these people need to be kept happy, but at a humiliating cost to others. It’s very easy to take our negative experiences with such people and apply them to God. This leads to a terrible misunderstanding of God, and is a perfect recipe for us to resent him. The truth is, however, that God doesn’t demand we humiliate ourselves in order to keep him happy. In fact, it was he who allowed himself to be humiliated so that we might be happy- or more specifically, that we might be saved.

            Consider what we remember in today’s liturgy. We began by recalling how Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey. That Jesus rode a donkey is significant. Just like cars makes statements about their drivers, so Jesus’ choice of transportation makes a statement about him. Historically, powerful kings who had conquered Jerusalem entered the city on a war horse. But Jesus, even though he is a king, didn’t come to conquer; he came to save. He didn’t want the people of Jerusalem to fear him, he wanted them to love him, as he loved them. That’s why he rode, not a powerful steed, but a humble donkey.

            Jesus’ humility, however, was supremely expressed in the humiliation of the Passion. He was beaten, mocked, spat upon, cursed, whipped, nailed to a cross, and left to endure a painful death of a criminal by bleeding and suffocation. This is no “volcano god” demanding a human sacrifice to make him happy. Instead, this is God’s Son offering himself as a sacrifice. Jesus didn’t do it to save himself from the wrath of an angry god. He did it to save us from the pain of being separated from a God who loves us so much. This isn’t a god for us to be afraid of; this is a God who fears, if you will, that we won’t realize how much we mean to him.

            In the Sacrament of Confirmation, one of the Holy Spirit’s gifts we received was the “fear of the Lord.” But we need to remember that fearing the Lord and being afraid of the Lord are two different things. When we’re afraid of the Lord, we want him to stay away and leave us alone. We serve him only because we fear the consequences if we don’t. But “fear of the Lord” is wonder and awe in the face of all that God has done for us; it’s a reverential love for one who loves us even more. And that’s good news for us to celebrate today. It’s not us versus the volcano god. God is on our side…so we should have nothing to fear.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Lent 5 Wednesday

"I’m free, to do what I want, any old time!" insisted the Rolling Stones. Their classic song reflects how many people today understand freedom: It’s about doing whatever we want, whenever we want to.
Jesus, on the other hand, spoke in today’s gospel of a freedom not to do as we please, but the freedom to do what is pleasing to God; a freedom that involves not just the right to make choices, but the freedom to choose what is right; a freedom not from discipline but dependent on discipline; a freedom that doesn’t give us a license to sin, but a freedom that liberates us from sin; a freedom not just to "be you and me," but a freedom to become all we were meant to be.

This freedom is rooted in a knowledge of the truth- a truth that is not just a body of knowledge, but a truth who is a person, Jesus Christ our Lord. What Jesus is saying to us today, then, is that if we follow him and live as he taught, we will truly be free- free from sin, free from unhappiness, free to love, free from fear, free to be his brothers and sisters, free to be sons and daughters of God.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Lent 5 Tuesday

Kevin and Chrissie were two individuals I became acquainted with during my seminary days. Chrissie was Kevin’s mother. At one time, Chrissie had been a nurse and Kevin an aspiring football player. But then Chrissie became an alcoholic, and Kevin soon followed suit. They became homeless, and when not in jail, they would roam the streets, shouting obscenities, getting into fights, and passing out on the sidewalk.

While praying one night, I shook my fist at God, demanding to know why he allowed something so terrible to have happened. But as I shouted, God answered by powerfully impressing upon my mind a vivid image of the cross. I felt chastised but peaceful, because this experience reminded me of an essential truth: To know God, we need to know the cross; without the cross, we can’t really understand God.

Jesus says as much in today’s gospel. People had asked, “Who are you?” To which Jesus replied, “You will know that I AM- you will know that I am God- when I have been lifted up” – lifted up on the cross.

To see Jesus on the cross is the key to understanding who Jesus really is. On the cross, we see humility, obedience, suffering, mercy, forgiveness, glory, kingship, sacrifice, priesthood, death, and victory over death. But most importantly, what we see on the cross is love. Because when Jesus was lifted up, he stretched out his arms, as if to welcome us into the eternal embrace of his love. Truly, to know the cross is to know Jesus. And to know Jesus is to experience his love.