Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Memorial of Saint Mary Magdalene

When I reflect on the witness of St. Mary Magdalene, one thing that always impresses me is the she “kept the faith”- even when “keeping the faith” was terribly hard; even when “keeping the faith” didn’t seem to make much sense.

While Jesus hung dying on the cross, and after most of Jesus’ friends had run away out of fear, she stayed and kept watch. We can only imagine the thoughts, feelings, and temptations that swirled around her that day: anger, confusion, terror, helplessness, loneliness, resentment.

It would have been very easy for her to have run away too. But she didn’t. She stayed; she “kept the faith.”Certainly out of courage; and maybe because she knew that at that moment, faith was the only thing she had left; faith was the one thing she really needed. Her reward? She saw the risen Jesus- something that those who had run away had to wait to experience.

The witness of St. Mary Magdalene can inspire us to “keep the faith”- when things seem their bleakest, when our friends aren’t there for us, when God himself seems to be distant or indifferent. Because as she learned, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, just like the first rays of the sun on Easter morning.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Ordinary 16 Monday

"Teacher, we want you to perform some signs," it was insisted to Jesus in today's gospel. Now, it's clear that those who approached Jesus with this request had rather questionable motives. However, there are many sincere people today- perhaps some of us- who would be grateful if Jesus would perform clear signs in their lives. They wonder why he doesn't reveal himself in some definitive, unambiguous way and dispel their doubt and unbelief.

But if you think about it, if Jesus were to do something like that, faith would end, as we know it. Instead, we'd all be compelled to believe! And compulsion spells the end of free choice. And the end of free choice eliminates the possibility of true love. And that's not how God wants our relationship with him to unfold.

And so God brushes past us, whispering in our ears, revealing himself to us in ways which invite without forcing, and sharing his love with us- always freely offered, and always freely accepted.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Ordinary 15 Saturday

“I’m a lover, not a fighter,” may have been a catchphrase from an 80’s pop tune, but it does happen to also be a fitting description of our Lord, as we see in today’s gospel.

Certain of his opponents were seeking to kill him, and Jesus fled to protect himself, as it was not yet the time for his Passion. Many people followed him into the wilderness, but he didn’t try to incite a riot, rally them into an army, or fan the flames of hatred against his enemies. Instead, in compassion and gentleness he healed the sick and proclaimed a message of hope to all who were willing to hear.

His actions fulfilled an ancient prophecy from Isaiah- a prophecy that did speak of victory. Yet this was not to be a military victory, but a victory of justice- a triumph of that which is right in the eyes of God, who calls us to establish peace, not wage war. Pope Francis put it well: (War) kills precisely that which is the message of the Lord: it kills love!”

Friday, July 18, 2014

Memorial of Saint Camillus de Lellis

While walking home after shopping, a woman encountered an older man with a cardboard sign which read, “Homeless, anything will help.” As she handed him a dollar, a man roared by in an SUV and yelled, “Sucker!” The woman was disturbed by this, not only because of the man’s rudeness, but also because she knew his sentiment is shared by so many. What he thought he saw was a con artist or a lazy bum. But what she saw instead was a human being in need.

When we encounter the homeless, the poor, the desperately needy, what do we see? A human being in need? If so, that’s good. Better yet, however, is to see the face of Christ himself, as did the sixteenth century Italian saint we honor today, St. Camillus de Lellis.

Thanks to a gambling addiction and an incurable war wound, he knew both poverty and pain. God’s grace, however, helped him conquer his addiction and a lifetime of serving the impoverished sick as a nurse and a priest. To assist in this ministry, he founded an order which still continues today, the Camillians, who wear a distinctive red cross on their cassocks.

St. Camillus made it a point to seek our the impoverished sick to give them consolation and practical help. On occasion, people thought his actions were foolish. If they lived today, they might call him a “sucker.” For his part, however, St. Camillus would remind his critics that, as the gospel teaches, Jesus himself is encountered in the needy, and he challenged them, and he challenges us, to do the same. “The poor and the sick are the heart of God,” he said. “In serving them, we serve Jesus the Christ.”

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Ordinary 15 Thursday

I once watched with my kids the Veggie Tales movie, Jonah and the Whale. If you’re not familiar with Veggie Tales, they’re amusing animated features on Biblical themes in which the main characters are talking vegetables.
Near the end of Jonah and the Whale, one character- a diminutive rodent pirate with an Indian accent- faces off against a proud and merciless Jonah- who is an asparagus- and says: "The world doesn’t need more people who are big and important. The world needs more people who are humble and kind and compassionate."

Silly as the movie was, it conveyed a simple but timely truth. Our Lord speaks this same truth to us in today’s gospel. He knows that we live in a culture and a city that places great importance on being "big and important." Power, prestige and connections count for so much. Living in a world like this often leads to what is called "status anxiety." We worry about what others think of us. We worry that someone may be gaining on us in the rat race. We’re envious of those who have sped on ahead of us. And it makes us nervous wrecks.

As with most worry, "status anxiety" is a self-inflicted wound. It’s a noose that strangles our potential for joy and peace. Our Lord knows this. That’s why he offers to replace this noose with a yoke- the easy yoke of his teaching and example. "Learn from me," he said, "for I am meek and humble of heart." For it’s only by striving to be "humble, kind, and compassionate," instead of "big and important," that we will find the rest promised by Jesus.

Wise advice from a talking asparagus! And a life-giving message for the rest of us.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Memorial of Saint Bonaventure

It’s one thing to read about what God is like; it’s another thing altogether to experience who God is. In a nutshell, this message is at the heart of the teaching of the saint we honor today: St. Bonaventure.

Bonaventure was a Franciscan, not least because he was healed of a childhood illness through the personal intercession of St. Francis. Bonaventure would later write the famous Life of St. Francis, and he served as the Minister General of the Franciscan order.

Bonaventure was also a great scholar. Alongside his colleague St. Thomas Aquinas, he was a thirteenth century professor of Theology at the University of Paris. Because of his great scholarship, he is recognized today as a Doctor of the Church. On account of his virtue, he is celebrated today as a saint.

As he was both learned and holy, Bonaventure was well aware that knowing God is more important than knowing about him. He wrote, “…seek (your) answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of will, not in the understanding; in the sighs of prayer, not in research.”

The God whom Bonaventure calls us to seek is a God of love. Bonaventure speculates that even if humankind had never sinned, God would still have become one of us in Jesus, because God loves us so much that he always has wished to live among us as one of us. Nevertheless, Jesus had to die for our sins on the cross, which Bonaventure tells us to reflect upon “full of faith, hope, and charity, devoted, full of wonder and joy, marked by gratitude, and open to praise and jubilation.”

Bonaventure the scholar would never discourage us from seeking Jesus with our head. But Bonaventure the saint challenges us to seek Jesus, most of all, with our heart.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Memorial of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha

Conversion often comes at a price- a reality that our Lord made quite clear in today’s gospel. He warned that following him would break up entire families. “One’s enemies will be those of his own household,” he said.

            This is as true today as it was in Jesus’ day, especially in those places where becoming Christian is understood as rejecting one’s cultural heritage, as is experienced by converts in predominantly Muslim or Hindu lands. In our society, converts might be thought of as crazy; in other societies, converts can be thought of as almost criminal.

            This was the experience of Saint Kateri, whose memorial we celebrate today. We call her the “Lily of the Mohawks,” but her uncle and adoptive father, a seventeenth century Mohawk chief, did not think of her in such glowing terms. When she became a Catholic with the help of French missionaries, her family treated her as a slave, and even denied her food on Sundays, since she refused to work on the Sabbath. Ultimately, her life became endangered, and she was forced to flee to a Catholic community some 200 miles away, where she remained the rest of her short life.

            Saint Kateri’s witness can remind all of us that we need to place allegiance to Christ above anything else that may lay claim to us, and regardless of what the cost may be. As she herself said: “I am not my own. I have given myself to Jesus.”

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

When I moved into my home eleven years ago, I inherited a backyard that once had been landscaped and beautiful. Yet everything had become completely overgrown with weeds, all because it has hardly been touched for nearly twenty years. As the man from whom I bought the house said, “If you don’t stay on top of it, nature quickly takes over.” Ever since then I’ve spent many hours my yard- weeding, tilling, mulching, seeding, planting, fertilizing, and weeding again. And as soon as I think I can take a break, “nature quickly takes over,” and the crab grass and weeds make their appearance once again.

I thought of my yard as I reflected on today’s gospel. Jesus told us that he wants us to be good soil that is receptive to the seed of his word and brings forth abundant fruits of the Spirit. Yet in order for us to become this type of soil, we need to invest effort, discipline, and time- just like with my backyard. Because the moment we don’t stay on top of it, our fallen human nature quickly takes over.

This is because when we aren’t attentive to God’s word, other voices will quickly fill the void. And then it’s these voices- and not God’s word- that will shape our thoughts, actions, and our character. Specifically, I’m referring to the voices of our culture, common sense, and our feelings.

The voice of our culture was loud and clear the other day as I sat next to two young women on an airplane who were deeply engrossed in a copy of “Cosmopolitan” magazine. From what I could see and hear, the articles were all about explicit love-making techniques, horoscopes, shopping, and beauty products: a spirit-killing diet of materialism, self-gratification, superstition, and soft porn. This reminded me that as Christians we need to be very, very careful about our media intake if we don’t want the voice of culture to drown out the voice of God.

The voice of “common sense” of can also be ungodly, although in a less obvious way. Yet if you think about it, so much of what Jesus taught us, and so many of his commandments to us, simply defy common sense. For instance, Jesus teaches us to love our enemies…to carry a cross…to humble ourselves as a servant…to give without counting the cost…that marriage is forever…that all life is sacred…that we should trust only in God. Yet common sense would have us hate our enemies, avoid suffering, promote ourselves, maximize our returns, divorce without fault, judge life by it’s so-called “quality”, and trust in our own abilities. Truly, common sense and godly wisdom can be very different things indeed!

Then there’s the voice of emotion. I imagine that we’ve all done things that felt right at the time but that we came to regret later on. Or maybe we’ve tried to convince ourselves that what we were doing was right because we were feeling afraid or angry or lonely or were caught up in the excitement of the moment. Feelings like this are given to us by God. They serve a purpose and we need to pay attention to them. Yet they can lead us down the wrong path if we’re not grounded in the Word of God.

That’s why Jesus says it’s so important for us to listen to God’s word. In today’s gospel, Jesus quoted a passage from the prophet Isaiah. It said that when we listen to God’s word, God can change us, and God can heal us. And deep down, that’s what we all want! But if we truly wish to receive these gifts, we truly need to listen. Lots of people came out to see Jesus in today’s gospel, but not all of them really listened. I imagine that’s probably true of our gathering today as well. I confess that I can be just as guilty as anyone else about letting my mind wander during the Biblical readings or a homily. Yet the truth is, as I heard it put recently, that we should listen at Mass as if we were listening to the instructions on how to open our own parachute!

Of course we need to do far more than be attentive at Mass in order to truly hear all that God wishes to say to us. As Catholics, we believe that God’s word comes to us in two ways: through the pages of Holy Scripture, and in the authentic teachings of the Church. We need to make it a priority to be receptive to both.

Bishop Robert Morneau of Green Bay says that whenever he confirms young people, he always tells them to remember two numbers: 144 and 168. 144 is the number of ten-minute periods in a day, and 168 is the number of hours in the week. He then asks them from that point on to give ten minutes a day to the study of God’s word and one hour every week to attend Sunday Mass.

And surely that isn’t too much to ask when it comes to the word of God. In reality, it should be just the beginning, or a bare minimum. We’re all busy people. Yet at the same time a typical American today spends dozens of hours each week in front of a television set, not to mention a computer screen. But if we stopped watching one thirty-minute television program a day and read Scripture instead, we could read through the entire Bible twice a year.

I’ve heard it said that one can’t become an effective preacher if all you read is Sports Illustrated. It’s just as true to say that we won’t become strong Christians if we fail to take in the Word of God. Our soil will become shallow, rocky, and weed-infested: precisely what Jesus warns against! We’ll become worldly people, instead of the people of God. That’s why what Jesus told the crowds, he also says to us: “Whoever has ears,” he said, “ought to hear.”