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.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Lent 5 Monday

For some odd reason, my garage’s light switch is in the kitchen. While in the garage one night, running on my treadmill, someone accidentally flipped off the lights. For a few scary moments, I found myself in complete darkness, running fast, but going absolutely nowhere.
My experience is a metaphor, I think, for how many people live their lives today: they run around like crazy, but their lives have no real purpose or direction. Kind of like running on a treadmill, in the dark.

Jesus doesn’t wish to us to live in darkness. That’s why, as we’re reminded in today’s gospel, he came to us as "the light of the world." Through faith in him, we know what life is about, and we know the direction in which our lives should go, because Jesus lights the way. With Jesus, our lives have purpose, peace, and hope.

Living in darkness can be frightening. When they were younger, my children would sometimes admit to being a little afraid of the dark, and I completely understood. They preferred to sleep with a light on. Jesus invites us to do the same thing: to keep the light on- his light- to scatter the fear that darkness brings.

As Pope Benedict assures us: "(Christ’s) light will dispel all darkness from your lives, and fill you with love and peace."

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Many of you will recall the horrible bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building back in 1995. Until 9/11, this bombing was deadliest act of terrorism ever on US soil. Not far from where that building stood is St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. In its garden now stands a tall, white-robed Jesus. His back is turned to the bombing site, and his shoulder is slumped in grief. With tears streaming down his cheeks, Jesus faces a brick wall with 168 empty spaces- one space for each person who died that terrible day. Inscribed at the base of the statue are two short words: “Jesus weeps.”

This statue, and its inscription, were inspired by today’s gospel. While walking to the tomb of his dear friend Lazarus, Jesus is filled with grief, and he burst into tears. John 11:37 says, very simply, “Jesus wept.” It’s the shortest verse in the Bible, but it’s also one of the most beautiful, because in it, Jesus’ humanity and compassion so clearly shine forth.

            Jesus’ tears assure us that it’s okay to be sorrowful when we lose someone we love. Sometimes, well-intentioned people may react to our grief by trying to cheer us up. They’ll say things like, “We’ll, he’s in a much better place now” or “She’s gone to be with the Lord.” We certainly hope and pray that that’s the case. But nevertheless it’s acceptable- indeed, it’s normal and even necessary!- to be sad when a loved one dies. Just think of Jesus. He can appreciate our grief because he’s experienced it himself. When we cry, Jesus cries right alongside us.

            In addition to sadness, however, Jesus also experienced anger at the death of his friend. Twice, in the passage we just heard, Jesus was “perturbed and deeply troubled.” A better translation might say that he “shuddered with anger.” Jesus did this first when he saw Mary and her friends weeping. He did it again when he stood before Lazarus’ tomb. Significantly, Jesus reacts the same way on two other occasions in this gospel: Shortly after he entered Jerusalem and knew that the “hour” of his passion was now at hand; and again at the Last Supper, as he foretold Judas’ betrayal. In each of these episodes, Jesus is confronted with death- either his own, or that of Lazarus. Death, evidently, makes Jesus angry.

Jesus’ anger is not uncontrolled rage or self-pity. Instead, it’s righteous indignation against death itself. Jesus is angry because death can take people well before their time, and it leaves an aching void in the lives of those left behind.  But most especially, Jesus is angry at death because it’s a consequence of sin, his greatest enemy of all.

All of this begs a question, however: If Jesus loved Lazarus so much that his death filled him with sorrow and anger, and if death is an enemy to be vanquished, why did Jesus linger for two days when he learned that Lazarus was on the verge of death? At first glace, it might appear that Jesus is heartless or cruel.

In reality, Jesus did what he did to demonstrate a point. As Jesus said to Mary, Lazarus’ sister, “I am glad for you that I was not there, so that you may believe.” Jesus knew that for Mary, and for all of us, death is a great test of faith. Whenever we face our own death or that of a loved one, we come to the realization that when we enter the grave, we do so alone. Anything we may have depended on before- friends, family, finances, reputation, accomplishments, hopes and dreams- are of no use to us when we pass through death’s door. When facing this prospect, even firm believers can be plagued with doubt and fears. It’s then we need to trust that death doesn’t have the final word, and that there truly is a God, who in his love offers us an eternal, heavenly existence beyond our wildest expectations.

However, this is precisely what Jesus wanted to demonstrate by raising Lazarus from the dead. This miracle is a sign anticipating Jesus’ resurrection, but it’s an intentional contrast, too. Lazarus was restored to a normal, earthly existence. He was resuscitated, not resurrected. Jesus brought him back to life only to die again another day. When Lazarus came shambling from his tomb, he was still wrapped in his burial cloths, reminding us that one day he’d have to be wrapped in those cloths again. But when Jesus emerged from his tomb on Easter morning, his burial shroud was left neatly in a corner- a sign that his body had been liberated forever from the bonds of death and corruption. Jesus didn’t die and rise again so that we could live forever in our present state. He came that we might enjoy a new life- a resurrection life!- a life of union with God which begins at baptism, but is perfected only after we have died. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said. “Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live. And everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Death brings with it sorrow and anger. Jesus shows us that. But for Christians, death can also bring our faith life to completion, and Jesus shows us that too. During his final days of battling pancreatic cancer, a Cardinal wrote of receiving a hospital visit from an old friend, who was a priest. Seeing the Cardinal in extreme pain and exhausted from radiation therapy, the priest offered words of comfort about his friend's approaching death. “It’s very simple,” he said. “People of faith, who believe that death is the transition from this life to life eternal, should see it as a friend.”

Friday, April 4, 2014

Saturday of Lent 4

Whether they are seductive whispers or violent shouts, distracting voices can keep us from hearing the things we really want or need to hear- including the voice of God. Just consider today's gospel. "Never before has anyone spoken like this man!" the guards exclaim after hearing Jesus. But the Pharisees mock them for believing something they themselves could not.

Are there voices that keep us from hearing God's word, or accepting it for what it is? Maybe it's the alluring voices of our marketing culture, encouraging us to find happiness in the things we buy or how we appear: "Look at me! Buy me!" Perhaps it's skeptical voices we hear: "How can you believe that old stuff? You've got to be kidding!" It could be the little cartoon devil on our shoulder, tempting us to disobey: "C'mon, everybody's doing it! It's nothing too bad." Very likely, it's all of the above. Too many voices from every angle. night and day, fill our minds with so much clutter that the voice of God simply gets drowned out by the static.

Faith comes through what is heard, Scripture tells us. That's why it's important to make the extra effort, and create space to listen so that the voice which speaks most to our heart is the voice of the One who loves us the most.