Sunday, June 17, 2018

Arbor Day? Father's Day!

   Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 
Trees seem to be on God’s mind this Father’s Day…and so they’re on my mind, too.

Trees play an important role in many passages from the scriptures.  Just last Sunday, we were reminded of the repercussions from Adam and Eve’s snack stolen from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which sent them next to the fig tree to make themselves some clothes.  

Without a doubt, the most celebrated of trees in the Bible are the famed cedars of Lebanon. In the responsorial psalm this morning, we were told that the just man grows like one of these.  There are not too many cedars of Lebanon left these days, but once upon a time these mighty trees grew in thick forests on the snowy mountain slopes there—some of them living for more than 1,000 years. Their wood was highly prized, such that King Solomon harvested their timber to build the temple in Jerusalem.

We have our own majestic trees much closer to home.  Did you know that the tallest tree in all of New York State stands just 30 miles south of here, not too far outside of Paul Smiths?  There you’ll find an old growth grove of white pines, which have somehow been spared logging and storms for centuries.  They’re believed to be nearly 350 years old.  5 of them are taller than the Statue of Liberty.  The tallest is over 160 feet tall, and more than 13 feet around.  (Those measurements are from 2012, so it’s likely even a bit bigger now.)

These trees are massive!  But consider how they started out.  Have you ever seen a white pine seedling?  It’s a rather puny thing.  (Think Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree…only more pathetic.)  It’s a stick with a few needles—that’s it! So tiny, so vulnerable, so seemingly insignificant.

God’s not only thinking about trees this Sunday; he’s also thinking of the birds in their branches. Our readings speak of how the birds of the air dwell in their shade.  Trees offer them shelter; trees protect them.  And trees also bear fruit—seeds and cones, nuts and berries—providing birds with food; trees nurture them.   Now, birds aren’t meant to stay in trees; the sky is their true home.  But the shelter and sustenance birds get from trees makes it possible for them to do what they were created to do: to fly high, to soar.

Ezekiel uses a cedar to prophesy about Israel: that out of this tiny nation would one day come a mighty king—a savior, the Messiah.  And Jesus points to the largest of plants that springs up from the smallest of seeds to teach us about the Kingdom of God: that from a few ragtag followers would come a great community of believers—the Church.

But in addition to these original meanings, I think the trees have a particular message for us on this Father’s Day.  You see, what trees provide for the birds is pretty much a dad’s job description: to project and to nurture his children.  And he does so with one goal in mind: so that these kids can soar!

It’s clear enough how to do this for children’s bodies: they need shelter and they need food. (And if there are teenagers in the house, they need lots of food!)

But what we do for their bodies, we must also do for their souls.

Many commentators today are saying that, here in the U.S., we have a Catholic Man Crisis.  

In 1965, 55% of Catholics went to Mass every Sunday; now, it’s only 23%.  50 years later, we have 30 million more Catholics on the books, but there are actually 8 million fewer Catholics sitting in the pews. 

It’s not been an equal exodus of the sexes.  Just look around!  Conservative estimates are that among regular Mass-goers, 60% are women, 40% are men.  We see the same thing in the rest of church life, as well.  Experts say that when it comes to roles in the Catholic Church that do not require ordination, 85% are filled by women.  The Catholic Church has the reputation of being a patriarchal and male-dominated institution…but the facts on the ground are a good bit different from the perception.

Among the men who are here in church, studies show that they’re rather disengaged.  83% say they rarely or never take part in any parish activity outside of Mass.  Less then half of these men say they pray at any other time.  And 55% say they get nothing out of Mass.

The Catholic Man Crisis quickly becomes a Catholic Fatherhood Crisis.

When children—especially sons—see dad bored, disengaged, late for Mass, leaving early, dozing off, skipping it completely, checking the score on his phone during the homily, checking out the ladies on the way to Holy Communion, checking out from Mass all together, it sends a message: Maybe this Catholic thing isn’t real.  At the very least, it’s not very manly.  I guess that, if I want to learn how to be a man, I’ll have to look somewhere else.

And when these same children notice that what they hear from the pulpit doesn’t match up with the way dad speaks and acts the rest of the week, it teaches them:  There’s no real connection between faith and life.  It’s OK to just go through the motions. (It must just be something we do to keep mom happy.)

These are not simply my own observations.  The Swiss did a rather revealing study a few years back.  It showed that when mom is regular about going to church but dad is not, then only 2% of their kids (just 1 in 50) will remain faithful to the religion in which they were raised.  But when it’s dad who goes regularly to church but mom does not, that number jumps to 44% of their kids remaining in the faith.  (Oddly and interestingly, that rate for dads is even higher than when both mom and dad are regular churchgoers.  But moms: that doesn’t mean I want you to stay home!)

All this is to say—Dads, your faith may sometimes feel like a white pine seedling: kind of puny compared to the task at hand, easily overlooked, knocked over, or snapped right off.  But what God sees is not something puny at all; what God sees is something full of potential. Yes, God can make your faith grow—make it strong and fruitful—but only if you let him.  Do that, and you’ll be able to fulfill the noble vocation the Lord has given you: to protect and nurture those souls that God allowed you to bring into this world—souls he created because he hopes to see them soar…all the way to heaven.

So let God our Father be a true father to you.  Let him shelter you.  Let him nurture you.  Let him teach you how to walk by faith, not sight.  After all, you can’t give what you ain’t got.  But God can turn that right around—in fact, God’s the undisputed master when it comes to starting small but reaching high.

I issue this Father’s Day call to “man up” as your spiritual father.  “Father” is more than just a formal title for me as your parish priest; it’s my job description, too: to protect and to nurture the church family entrusted to my care.  If I don’t call and challenge you to grow—well, the ripples effects…we’re already seeing them.

How I long to see this parish become a grove of old growth Catholics—the most magnificent around—strong and fruitful in a way that puts the white pines of Paul Smiths to shame! But I myself can only do so much. As every wise farmer and forester knows: the real secret of growth is hidden away, underground.  It must all begin in the soil of our hearts.

Just men shall flourish and grow like the cedars of Lebanon.  Thus the Lord has spoken.  Let us strive to make it so.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Who's to Blame?

   Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

I had a classmate in the seminary from the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana…and you knew it from the moment Bryce first opened his mouth.  He was the reader at morning Mass one day, and the first reading was the one from Genesis that was read today.  But instead of God asking Adam, “Who told you that you were naked?” as we’d expected, we heard, “Who told you yous was nekkid?”  We knew that Bryce’s grammar was much better than that, so we asked for an explanation on the way to breakfast.  “Oh, you northerners!” he said.  “Don’t you know that there’s a difference between ‘naked’ and ‘nekkid’?  When you’re naked, you don’t have any clothes on, but when you’re nekkid, you don’t have any clothes on, and yous up to sumptin’.”

That unfortunate incident with the apple in Eden set into motion some very longstanding patterns in the world—and more than just putting clothes on every morning.  The original sin was the start of the blame game.  Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent.  (The serpent—very interestingly—doesn’t blame anybody.)  Yet a closer reading reveals that Adam blamed someone else before blaming Eve: “The woman whom you put here with me—she gave me the fruit…”  The old catchphrase is, “the devil made me do it,” but from day one we’ve been laying the blame on God.

What’s happening here is more than a simple attempt to convince the Lord that “really, it’s not my fault!”  The temptation to disobey God actually flows from the temptation to doubt him.

God hasn’t given our first parents some arbitrary rule about produce.  The forbidden fruit is taken from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  We can think, “What’s so bad about human beings knowing right from wrong?”  The actual nature of this tree doesn’t translate well into English, for it’s not about recognizingright and wrong but about determining for oneselfwhat’s right and wrong.  Hence the serpent’s enticement: “You know, God has only forbidden you to eat from that tree to protect himself.  If you eat it, you’ll be just like him—making your own rules.  He’s holding out on you.  He doesn’t really have your best intentions at heart…”  The serpent manages to make something evil look good in order to make God look bad.  And it’s an effective trick he still hasn’t tired of using all these centuries later.

Notice what Adam and Eve do right off the bat: they hide and sew fig leaves together to clothe themselves.  This is more than shame at their “nekkidness.”  Their doubt of God’s good will runs so deep that they now feel the need to protect themselves from him.  That’s why it’s significant to note what this unhappy couple does notsay to the Lord: that they’re sorry. They never ask for forgiveness! Fearful and ashamed, they persist in their doubts about God: doubting that God is merciful; doubting that’s God’s love for them is bigger than their sin.

We find a parallel pattern in this Sunday’s gospel.  The established religious leaders are feeling threatened by this traveling preacher, healer, and exorcist.  Proper order must be maintained for the good of the people.  “We haven’t authorized this Jesus to say or do these things.  Clearly he’s mad—no, wait—he’s possessed!”  It’s absurd to claim that Satan is fighting against Satan, but that’s their argument.  “Of course, we would never be in league with the evil one, so Jesus must be.”  They are so certain that they’re right, so proud and self-righteous, that they cannot see their error, even with the truth laid out clearly before them.

And so we have before us two ways to cut ourselves off from the power of the Holy Spirit, from the reach of God’s forgiveness—to commit what Jesus warns is “an everlasting sin”: on the one hand, to believe, “I’m too far gone; God could never forgive me” (doubt and despair); on the other hand, to believe, “I’m that good that I don’t need any forgiving” (self-righteousness and pride).  Neither perspective is able to accept a Savior, and so neither can be saved. God won’t ever force himself on us.  We can only be forgiven if we’re open to it.

The pattern of doubt goes even farther than the bad things that we do, that have a human cause and for which someone (maybe even oneself) is to blame—what we call “moral evil.” It also extends to the bad things we must endure—things known as “natural evil”—such as disease and natural disasters.  Whether it’s the common cold or cancer, that we’re stuck in a traffic jam or just lost our home in a tornado, we find ourselves asking, “Why doesn’t God stop picking on me? Why is God punishing me?” Even our insurance companies refer to such incidents as “acts of God”!  Doubting God’s good intentions slides into discouragement, or even into outright rejection of him.

At one point or another, we’ve all found ourselves in these situations.  “If you’re so good, God, then why did you make us this way? If you’re so good, God, then why did you make the world this way?”  They’re questions that arise from the seeds of doubt sown way back when by the serpent.

This is the point where you’re thinking, “Now Fr. Joe is going to answer those questions and clear everything up.”  Sorry—but no answers here.  In fact, no one has the answers to the mystery of evil.  And really, who are we—mere mortals—to question our Maker and his inscrutable plan?

No, I don’t have the answers, but I do have two examples to which we ought to look for inspiration.

The first is St. Paul. In our second reading today, he writes, “While on the outside we may be wasting away, on the inside we’re being renewed every day.  We can accept this momentary light affliction because it will produce an eternal weight of glory.”  But when we’re stuck in sin, when we’re deeply suffering, such words can seem to be little more than pious platitudes.

That’s until we read these words in context.  They come to us from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.  Corinth was the Las Vegas of its day—Greece’s “sin city.”  Paul was justifiably worried that what happened in Corinth wouldn’t stay in Corinth.  So he called out the Christians there for participating in the culture’s wickedness.  And, as you might expect, the Corinthians didn’t take it very well.  So they launched a counter attack against Paul: “Just who do you think you are?”  And their greatest argument against his credibility was just how very much he suffers. “Your life’s a mess, Paul.  You keep getting sick.  We’ve lost count of the times you’ve been arrested and jailed.  You’ve been beaten, stoned, and left for dead.  You’re a disaster!  What kind of man of God goes through all that?  The Lord certainly must not love you very much!”

St. Paul responds by telling the Corinthians that they’ve got it all wrong.  All this suffering doesn’t call his credentials into questions; all this suffering ishis credentials.  His suffering is evidence that he serves Jesus who suffered himself. Rather than making excuses, or demanding an explanation, he invites them to examine the evidence in his own life.

Paul isn’t preaching a God who is separate from us, high above this messy, painful world, watching and waiting to catch us doing wrong.  (Gotcha!)  That’s the kind of God the serpent convinced Adam and Eve to fear.  No, Paul believes in a God who desires to walk right along side of us.  That’s precisely what God comes to do when he finds Adam and Eve in hiding: he’s out for his evening stroll with them in the garden.  God wants to walk with us, to carry our burdens, to carry us.  In Christ, God identified with us in our sin and our suffering so completely that he willingly endured the shame and anguished death of the Cross.  And just as God raised Jesus from the dead, so he can also lift us up from our despair and discouragement…but only if we allow God to, and to do it on histerms.

Paul knows this from firsthand experience.  That’s why later in this same letter he can say that he actually boasts of his weakness, because when he’s weak it makes it clear that God is strong (2:9-10).  Yes, Paul admits, life is hard—terribly hard sometimes—and we must take responsibility for our part in that.  No one promised that it would be easy.  No one gets through without suffering—no one.  But there’s more—much more—than meets the eye. As difficult as things can be, as much as we struggle to understand, we do not face any of it alone.

A second example of one who broke the pattern set in motion in Eden is the woman we find waiting outside the door at the conclusion of this Sunday’s gospel: Jesus’ dear mother, Mary.

Jesus’ words to the crowd can sound awfully disrespectful when we know his mom is within earshot: “Who is my mother?  Who are my brothers?”  But the offense is only apparent.  Carefully consider his response: “My mother, my true family, are those who do the will of God.”  Other than the Lord himself, did anyone ever do God’s will more perfectly than Mary?  She’s the Mother of God by giving him birth, for sure, but also his Mother by her unwavering obedience—making Mary the first and greatest of Christ’s disciples.  The first woman, on hearing the serpent’s temptation, said, “Mywill be done!  I know best what’s good for me.” This woman, on hearing the angel’s message, said, “Thywill be done!  May it be done unto me according to your word.”  Mary’s complete trust in God—even without knowing his plan or understanding her place in it—gave us the promised Savior who came to crush the serpent’s head.  His victory is already won.

“Who told you yous was nekkid?”

We need to stop laying blame, especially on God.  Yes, we have an enemy…but it isn’t him!  When you’re tempted to shame and despair, to self-righteousness and pride, to discouragement and doubt, be sure to break the pattern.  Decide instead to trust God and his blessed will for you—to trust that with the Lord there is loving mercy and the fullness of redemption.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Give Blood, Give Life

We had ten childrenfive boys and five girlsreceive their First Holy Communion at Mass this Sunday. One of the girls eagerly started to take her shoes off...and mom put a quick stop to that.  This picture with Evan gives you some idea about the mood after Mass:

   The Most Holy Body & Blood of Christ   B 

Boys and girls, you know that for a long time I’ve baked bread with the children as they got ready for their First Holy Communion.  We didn’t do that yesterday—I thought we’d change things up a bit—but we did talk for a few minutes about how bread is made: with flour and water.  

Well, there’s one thing we didn’t get to yesterday that I thought we could do right now.  To celebrate Mass, we don’t only need bread; we also need wine.  So I thought we’d make a little wine today.  Did you all wash your feet this morning?  I’ve got this little tub here, and I bought these grapes.  Why don’t you start taking off your shoes so we can stomp out some wine…

This is when five mothers start saying, “Not in that pretty white dress, you won’t!”

To squash grapes with our feet in your nice church clothes would be crazy, right?  It would make a huge mess!  But doing that would be a lot less crazy than what Jesus did that has talking about wine in the first place today, what Jesus did to show us how much he loved us when he died on the Cross.

We just heard the story of Jesus’ Last Supper on the night before he died.  At the table with his friends, he took the break, broke it, and said, “Take this and eatit: this is my Body.”  And then he took a cup of wine and said, “Take this and drinkit: this is my Blood.”

Our readings at Mass today are full of blood—lots and lots of blood.  There’s the blood of bulls and goats.  There’s bowls of blood splashed on the altar.  And there’s more blood sprinkled on the people.  Sounds pretty gross, right?  And it would far more messy if we did that today than if we actually stomped out these grapes to make a little wine.

So why all this talk about blood?  Why is blood so important as you receive your First Communion?  Let me tell you a little story to help you understand.

A girl about your age named Lisa was very, very sick—so sick that the doctors were worried she was going to die.  But they knew there was one thing that could make Lisa better, and that was a blood transfusion. (Do you know what a transfusion is?  It’s when someone gives their blood to someone else who needs it.)

Well, because Lisa was so sick, they knew they would need blood that was a perfect match—and they knew where they could get it: from her five-year-old brother, Josh. Because Josh was so young, the doctors were worried about asking for his blood, so they tried to explain everything to him slowly and carefully.  And when they were done, Josh made a serious face, thought about it for just a minute, and said, “Yes, I’ll do it to save my sister.”

The two kids were lying on hospital beds, side by side.  And as Josh’s blood started to flow in Lisa’s veins, she started to look better. She opened her eyes and the color began to come back to her cheeks.  Everybody smiled, including Josh.  But then Josh’s face went white, he got very serious again, and called the doctors over to his bed.

Josh asked, “Will I start to die right away?”  You see, Josh hadn’t really understood what the doctors were asking him. He thought he was going to have to give Lisa allof his blood.

Josh knew that when your blood gets separated from your body, you die.  He understood that blood is life.  But he was willing to make that sacrifice for his big sister.

A sacrifice is when you give up or give away something good and important and precious in order to help make something or somebody better.  And it’s the sacrifice that Jesus made for you that makes your First Communion possible today.  Jesus gave up his life here on earth so that you would be able to have life with him in heaven some day.  And Jesus gave away all of his Blood because he wanted to share his life, and not only with the twelve Apostles at the Last Supper.  Through his Apostles and then through priests after them, in the Sacrament we call the Eucharist, Jesus left a way for all people, everywhere, for thousands of years—including you, boys and girls—to have Jesus’ life within them, to have Jesus’ Blood flowing through their own veins.

Yesterday, when we were exploring behind the scenes in the sacristy, we looked at the silver chalice that was made when I was ordained a priest and offered my first Mass. And we saw on the bottom of it that it has my name and the date I became a priest.  But it also has these words:I will raise the cup of salvation; I will call upon the name of the Lord—words from the Psalm we sang about 10 minutes ago

This is no ordinary cup, because it holds no ordinary drink.  In just a few minutes, the deacon will fill this chalice with wine. And not long afterward, when you come forward to receive Holy Communion, if go to drink from it, what’s inside will still look like wine, and taste like wine, and smell like wine (and hopefully not like any stinky feet that helped to make it).  But what’s in this chalice won’t be wine anymore; it will be the Blood of Christ.  When we lift up this chalice, it’s the sacrifice of Jesus for you.

And that’s why we call it the “cup of salvation,” because what’s inside of it has the power to save our lives.  What Josh was willing to do for Lisa should make you think of what Jesus has done for you. Jesus was willing to die, willing to shed allof his Blood on the Cross, so that he could save you, so that you can live forever.

Boys and girls, today is a very special day as you receive your First Holy Communion.  But it’s a very special day every time we offer Mass, every time we’re able to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.  So every time that you walk up to the altar, be sure to remember the sacrifice Jesus made to show his love, and be sure to have a heart full of thanks that he left this great Sacrament so his own life could flow in you.

* * *
After Holy Communion:
Lord Jesus, in the Sacrament of your Body and Blood, you have given yourself to us as food and drink: our Bread of Life and Chalice of Salvation.  Stay always in our hearts!

Sunday, May 27, 2018

All in the Family

   The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity   B 

I was recently teaching a make-up class for one of our Confirmation candidates, to which she came with her grandmother.  The subject was the Creed.  Now, you can’t spend too much time with the Creed without having to confront our faith in the Holy Trinity.  “OK, we believe in one God…but we also believe in God the Father, and God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  So which is it?”

I had barely started in on the subject when the grandmother’s eyes glazed right over. “No need to try and explain the Trinity, Father.  I’m just as happy to accept it as a mystery!”

For nearly 2,000 years, the brightest Christian minds have been wrestling with this mystery—one too great, too extraordinary, for our mortal minds to fully grasp. Because it is such a central tenet of the faith, it’s important to get it right, which is why specific theological language has developed over time.  We find some of it in the familiar words of the Creed: we believe in the Son who is “begotten, not made, consubstantialwith the Father” and in the Holy Spirit “who proceedsfrom the Father and the Son.”  This makes it that much easier to fall into the trap of thinking of the Most Blessed Trinity as a complex concept, an academic abstraction, an intellectual puzzle…and something most of us, therefore, are just as happy to leave to the trained experts, thank you very much.

And yet, at the very same time, there can’t be anything more ordinary for us Catholics.   When you entered this church today, chances are you dipped your hand into the Holy Water and crossed yourself,  “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  We did it again when Mass began.  We do it when saying grace before a meal or the beginning of any formal time of prayer.  It would be hard to think of anything more commonplace among the faithful.

Let’s consider for a moment the gods of the world’s other religions—both ancient and modern. I see them basically falling into two groups.  The first is made up of those gods that seem all-too-human.  Think of the gods of Greek and Roman mythology that you once studied in history class.  They have their love affairs, get insanely jealous, and quite a few seem to have some serious anger issues (which is a rather big deal when you’ve got unlimited access to thunder and lightening).  These gods are simply more powerful versions of ourselves; we’ve created them in our own image.

The second group is of gods who seem impersonal, distant, almost completely cut off from this world. I think of the gods of many religions of the Far East.  Remember the Force from the Star Wars movies?  These gods are like that: an all-pervading energy, a unifying principle, a harmonizing ideal.  You can’t really relate to such gods…which makes it much less likely for them to require much from us.

But then there’s the God of the Bible, the God of Jesus Christ, the Most Holy Trinity. Here’s the God who created us in his own image and likeness (not the other way around).  Here’s the God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, the very logic behind the whole universe, but who also desires to be intimately involved in our lives.

Let me use the example I used with my Confirmation class.  For a husband to be a husband, he needs a wife—and vice versa. What holds husband and wife together is love—love for each other pledged for life in marriage.  Love makes these two into one…and, in most cases, one then becomes three when a child is born.  Husband and wife thus become father and mother.  Now, you can’t be a father without a mother and a child. And you can’t be a mother without a father and a child.  And you can’t be a child without a father and a mother.  (Did I leave anyone out?)  

What you have are three distinct persons, defined by their interdependent relationships, and bound together as one family by love.  That’s nothing overly intellectual; actually, it’s something any of us ought to be able to understand from direct human experience, since nobody in this room came into being in any other way.

While it’s only an analogy, and by no means exactly the same thing, the basic structure of a human family can go a long way toward helping us understand the God who is love. Love, of course, requires both a lover and a beloved; it cannot exist in total isolation.  We begin with the Father, who in order to be a Father needs a Son.  Likewise, the Son, in order to be a Son, needs a Father.  And because the love of Father and Son is perfect, creative, and eternal, their love for each other is a third Person: the Holy Spirit.  

The God we believe in is so personal that he is three divine Persons, defined by their relationship with one another, yet only one God, in the unity of absolute love.  And since this triune God made us in his image, it should come as no surprise that we find hints and traces of God’s mysterious inner life reflected in our own human nature.  

The God of our Creed, the God we believe in, is not some nameless, faceless life-force simply running the machinery of the cosmos; he is the very personal God who not only created us, but then did whatever it would take to be part of the nitty-gritty of our lives.

And so we find Moses asking the Israelites, “Has anything so great every happened before?”  God had chosen this people as his very own—and proved it repeatedly with signs and wonders—not because they were extra special or any better than anybody else, but in order to give them a mission: to draw all the nations to God.  We can answer Moses’ question by saying, “No, the likes of this had never been seen before!”  Not until then, anyway.  But God would go on to top himself.  

Out from that same chosen people, God raised up a Savior, coming himself to dwell with us in our human flesh.  And in our flesh, God demonstrated the depths of his love, dying on the Cross.  Jesus himself had said, “No man has greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.”  No manhas greater love, but God’s love goes even farther: loving not only his friends, but also his enemies; loving us in our sin in order to save us from it.

By our Baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity, as Jesus commanded, our sins were washed away in the Blood of his Cross, and we were united with him in the one Body of Christ.  We were adopted, becoming heirs of the kingdom, heirs of heaven, children of God in his Only Begotten Son.  We were filled with the Spirit who allows us to call God ourAbba, our Father, just as really and truly as Jesus does.  And all of this makes it possible for us to go forth and do as Jesus did.  He has entrusted his mission to us, his Church: to gather all the nations; to bring all peoples to know and love the God who loves them.

When you make the Sign of the Cross over yourself, what’s at the center?  You are!  God has pulled you into himself—into the relationship of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Is the Most Blessed Trinity a mystery?  Yes, of course!  But it’s not a mystery in the sense that trigonometry and organic chemistry are mysteries: subjects only the brightest minds can understand. No, the Holy Trinity is a mystery in the sense that love is a mystery: something you can’t figure out because it isn’t meant to be figured out; a mystery that doesn’t scare you away, but that draws you farther and farther into itself.

The next you make the Sign of the Cross, don’t do it so quickly or sloppily that you look like any other Adirondacker swatting at the mosquitoes and black flies. Instead, do it deliberately and with devotion, as someone who believes in one God in three Persons—the God who is life and love—who embraces you with his love now, and longs to share his life with you forever.

* * *
After Holy Communion:
Eternal Father, by the power of your Holy Spirit, in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood, your Son has come into our midst yet again—fulfilling his promise to remain with us always. May the loving, living presence of Jesus within us in Holy Communion draw us evermore deeply into you.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Ain't No Shame

   Pentecost   B 

Some years ago, McDonald’s Corporation commissioned a study to understand why customers chose to order food through the drive-thru rather than go inside the restaurant. Most of us would guess it’s a matter of convenience.  But the main reason the researchers discovered was actually shame.  It seems that a lot of folks who use the drive-thru are ordering food between meals, so they’re afraid of who might see them getting that chocolate shake and large fry as a snack at three o’clock in the afternoon.

Wanting to keep their customers happy (and keep their money coming in), McDonald’s changed the drive-thru experience: ordering your meal by number through a speaker, then paying quickly at one window before picking up your order the next—minimizing the human contact you’ll have and so helping you to feel more anonymous.  Of course, that’s now the standard for any fast-food establishment.

In our gospel reading this Sunday, we find the Apostles on that first Easter night hoping to remain anonymous.  They’re locked together in the upper room.  They’re there because of fear: fear that what happened to Jesus just two days before, leaving him dead and buried, would also happen to them.  And they’re also there because of shame: shame that in their Master’s hour of trial and suffering, one of their own had betrayed him, another had denied him, and all but one had fled.

In our first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, we find the same group gathered in one place 50 days later—presumably huddled together in the very same upper room.  But then the Holy Spirit descends upon them…and everything changes.  Now they’re out in the streets, speaking to strangers from foreign lands about Jesus Christ.  And we know they’re in the midst of a huge crowd, because later in the chapter we’re told that 3,000 people asked to be baptized that very day.

It’s too bad our passage doesn’t continue for just a couple of more verses, because we'd hear some in that crowd saying, “It’s only nine o’clock in the morning…but I think these guys are drunk!”  Which prompts Peter to declare, “No, our heads aren't swimming in new wine!  But our hearts are on fire with the Spirit of God, and we just can’t keep it to ourselves.”

What a difference the Holy Spirit makes!  All their fear and shame are gone.

Isn’t there just one Holy Spirit?  And isn’t the Holy Spirit that you and I received in Baptism and Confirmation the very same Holy Spirit that was given to the Apostles on Pentecost?  Then…where’s the striking change?  Where’s the dramatic difference?  Where’s the fire?

Let’s consider what happens in the Sacrament of Confirmation.  Confirmation is ordinarily conferred by a Bishop. And who’s a Bishop?  A successor to the Apostles—at our end of an unbroken chain that reaches back to that bunch gathered in the upper room. It’s takes an apostle to make an apostle—and that’s just what Confirmation aims to do.  

We’re given the gift of the Holy Spirit at our Baptism, when he serves as the glue that binds us together to Christ and his Body, the Church.  But the same Spirit who gathers us in as followers—as disciples—in Baptism, then sends us out as witnesses—as apostles—in Confirmation. The Spirit sends us out, not to leave the Church and never return (although that seems to happen far too often), but to go out so we can bring others in.  The Spirit is the wind in our sails, giving us power and direction as we go forth.

What does the Bishop do to confirm us?  He anoints us with holy oil—with the Sacred Chrism.  “Chrism” is only one letter different from “Christ,” and that’s no accident, for “Christ” literally means “the anointed one.” The Holy Spirit works through the sign of this holy oil to make you another Christ.  In Confirmation, we don’t confirm our own faith as a Catholic; rather, it’s God who confirms us as one of his own—sealing and perfecting what he began in Baptism.  Confirmation puts an invisible but permanent mark on your soul so that you will be able to leave a visible mark on the world.  

You are anointed on the forehead because this belonging to God, this likeness to Christ, this presence of the Holy Spirit within you, ought to be seen all over your face. Likewise, the Sacred Chrism is perfumed, usually with balsam (giving it a nice woodsy, Adirondack aroma). You know how, when someone wears too much perfume or cologne, you can always tell right where they’ve been? Well, we Christians ought to be so holy that you can smell it!  We ought to leave an unmistakable trail of sanctity everywhere we go.

After the Bishop anoints you on the forehead with Sacred Chrism, he says, “Peace be with you”—the very greeting the Risen Jesus spoke to his Apostles that first Easter. Nowadays, he usually does so with a modest, reserved handshake.  But back in the day, he’d slap the newly confirmed on the cheek (how hard it was done seems to have depended on the particular Bishop).  Why the slap when giving you a greeting of peace? To toughen you up. Christians need to be ready at all times to suffer for the Faith.  

We don't often speak this way any more, but the truth remains: Confirmation makes you a soldier of Christ.  That doesn’t mean we’re looking for a fight, becoming part of gang that’s ready to rumble.  No, the battle is already on.  It’s going on within us, as St. Paul points out to the Galatians: the flesh wars against the Spirit; we’re caught in the struggle between the things that drag us down to earth and those trying to lift us up to heaven.  And you don’t need me to give you examples of the battle that raging all around us and—sadly—sometimes even among us.

The very same gift given to the Apostles on that first Pentecost has already been given to you.  The Holy Spirit dwells within you!  But where’s that energy?  Where’s the spark?  Where’s the fire?  Unfortunately, far too many of us treat our Catholic life as if it were a drive-thru window: we pull up, get what we’re after, hoping to drive off as quickly as possible and without needing to deal with too many people in the process. And so, whether it’s because of fear, or shame, or doubt, or a lazy desire for convenience, we remain locked together in the upper room.

To make a glass of chocolate milk is simple enough, right?  You take a glass of milk and squeeze the chocolate syrup into it.  But you can’t stop there, or the chocolate just sits on the bottom and the milk remains unchanged.  It still needs to be stirred.  And so it is with the gift of the Spirit.  His presence is powerful, but it isn’t magic.  Get all stirred up—and don’t wait another day to do it.

We have our marching orders.  God has given us a mission and equipped us with everything we need to accomplish it.  Now it’s up to us to move—and no one else can do it for you.

The Lord has sent out his Spirit—has poured his Holy Spirit into our hearts.  It’s time to get up and go—to go out and renew the face of the earth.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Looking Up

After one of the Masses, a parishioner came to me and said, "I never knew, Father, that you could bring coffee to church!"

Happy Mother's Day to all the moms out there.  Thank you for all the times you looked down into our eyes with love, so that we would learn how to look up to God.

  Seventh Sunday of Easter   B 
Twenty-five years ago, a mother wrote a book about raising a young daughter who’d been diagnosed with autism.  Early signs that something was out of the ordinary were when her parents realized that their daughter never imitated them, as little children do, or called out to them for help.  She had a hard time focusing.  She didn’t pick up clues from body language.  She preferred to be alone.  In fact, the mother tells of how her child never really seemed to look at her; instead, she seemed to look right through her.

In particular, this mother outlined the lengths to which she and her husband went to help their little girl recover.  What she describes is an intensive course of behavioral therapy—some of it involving therapists, but much of it dependant on mom and dad.  The cornerstone of this approach was nothing other than eye contact.  We don’t usually stop to consider the critical role something as simple as eye contact plays in the brain development, emotional stability, and social awareness of children.  Every deliberate drill, every casual interaction, began exactly the same way: “Look at me!”

This treatment plan—still in use today—doesn’t waste time trying to diagnose the causes of a child’s autism; instead, it works to correct whatever went wrong.  The constant repetition of, “Look at me!” and the associated techniques to help the child do exactly that, are a means for replicating a crucial experience in a child’s early development: the experience of his or her mother, while nursing, looking into her baby’s eyes—immature eyes that can only focus back on hers, because anything closer or farther away is just a blur.

After a little over a year of this behavioral therapy, the couple’s daughter acted no different than her peers.   They took her to her doctor for a reevaluation.  The doctor knew she’d made a full recovery as soon as this little girl walked into his office; he could see it in her eyes.

“Look at me!”

I suspect I’m not the only one who wants to repeat those same words to many people—adults and children alike.  I’ve been out to dinner and seen families seated around the table, or walked past mothers pushing strollers down the sidewalk, or waited in line with others at the grocery store—and everyone’s bent over their own little glowing screen. These devices claim to revolutionize communication, but quite often they pull people away from those who are right there in front of them.  This technology is having real effects—much of it frighteningly similar to autism.  It’s shortening our attention spans, impairing our ability to focus, and ruining our social skills.  It’s altering our patterns of thought, and studies are now revealing how it negatively affects a child's brain development.  

We’re becoming people who no longer know how to make eye contact.

There’s a spiritual impact to this, too: as we forget how to look into one another’s eyes, we can’t help but forget how to gaze upon God.

This Sunday’s gospel reading comes from St. John’s account of the Last Supper.  After Jesus has washed the feet of his Apostles and taught them at length—as we’ve heard the last two Sundays—we now come to what is known as his “priestly prayer.”  It’s the prayer of Jesus before he willingly dies on the altar of the Cross; it's the prayer of our great High Priest before he offers his perfect and living sacrifice.

Notice how the passage begins: “Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed…”

Jesus looks up to his Father when he speaks to him.  As a man like us, he’s more than his mind, and so his prayer involves both body and soul, the physical and the spiritual—his whole person.  Jesus is praying to his Father for us: praying that he will guard and keep us; praying that we will be consecrated as he was consecrated—set apart for God and holy.  But as we listen to the tender, intimate way in which Jesus speaks to the Father, it becomes perfectly clear: this is not the first time Father and Son have made eye contact.

What a lesson this holds for you and me!  In Jesus Christ, God is pleading with the human race: “Look at me!”

Our ancestors in the faith understood this well.  They enshrined this posture of Jesus at the Last Supper in the texts and rubrics of the Roman Canon—the most ancient of our Eucharistic Prayers—as it directs the priest himself to look upward as he recounts the way Jesus prayed “with eyes raised to heaven, to you O God, his almighty Father.”  And we see it in the way they built their churches, too: facing east, oriented toward the rising sun.  From the earliest days of Christianity until fairly recently, priest and people at prayer all looked in the same direction, awaiting the dawn of that great day when we will behold the face of God—when we will finally be able to look the Lord in the eye.

“Look at me!”

This Sunday, we’re going to tap into that great wisdom.  I will offer this Mass standing on the opposite side of the altar from what we’ve become used to.  Let me be clear: this is not—and never has been—about the priest turning his back on the people; it’s about all of us looking together at God.

Now, you and I both know that God isn’t literally up there in space just beyond the sun and moon, or hanging out somewhere along the east coast.  Looking up and facing east are both ways of indicating that God is far beyond the confines of this world he has created, surpassing the distant horizon and the highest heavens.

I recently offered daily Mass this way.  A parishioner who’d never encountered it before made sure to tell me that the Mass had been “special” for her: “It made me focus just a bit more than usual.”  I know it certainly does that for me.  Rather than concentrating on how best to “perform” the rituals, I can instead more easily pray the Mass—especially when I’m not distracted by folks in the pews reading the bulletin, sipping on coffee, clipping their finger nails, or texting on their cell phones.  

When I’d done this in another parish several years ago, someone there said, “Father, you feel so much closer to us when you stand on our side of the altar.”  She recognized that this really does help to restore proper eye contact.  Mass is not something that the priest does for the people, as it would appear when you and I spend the entire time looking at each other.  No, Mass is something that priest and people do together for the Lord.  It’s simply a matter of good manners, just like we teach our kids: Look at someone when you speak to them.

Rest assured: this is not a permanent change (I haven’t moved any furniture); I’m not attempting to turn back the clock or saying there’s anything wrong with the way we’ve been doing things the last 50-60 years (that’s the Mass I grew up with); and I’m not breaking any rules—this has been a legitimate option all along—so don’t call Bishop LaValley or write to Pope Francis (who, by the way, offers Mass this way himself every once in a while).  This is just a physical means—behavioral therapy, you might say—meant to assist us in recovering a spiritual skill we rapidly seem to be losing: how to gaze upon God.

Most of us (thank you moms!) had the vital developmental experience during our very first days outside the womb of looking into our mother’s loving eyes.  May the ancient wisdom of our Holy Mother, the Church, help us to fully recover our spiritual sight: raising our eyes to heaven with Jesus, together gazing into the eyes of our eternal Father, only to realize that God was already gazing upon us, his children—looking at us with the greatest love.

This homily depends heavily on the article, “Look at Me,” by Patricia Snow, in the May 2016 issue of First Things.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Why Can't We Be Friends?

   Sixth Sunday of Easter   B 

About five years ago, we started noticing a “peeping tom” hanging around the rectory.  He was a resident of Vale Haven next door who began repeatedly standing outside our kitchen window: smoking his cigarette, drinking his coffee, and looking in.  He seemed harmless enough, so we didn’t worry about it too much.  And then one day, when this had been going on for awhile, as I stood at the kitchen sink looking out, I decided to wave.  The man waved back, and then scurried away. I thought, “There.  That’s the end of it.  He knows he’s been caught.”

But he came back. And he kept coming back. Because now, he wouldn’t leave until somebody waved at him.  In time, we got to know his name; I’ll call him, “Ralph.”  And we realized that Ralph wasn’t some sort of creep. Ralph was just lonely and looking for some human contact.

We knew that Ralph was innocent, but his presence did make life interesting at times.  Like whenever we had overnight guests staying on the first floor: “So don't be alarmed when you see a man standing outside your bedroom window…”  Or like the day one of us walked in and found him in church…sitting with his coffee in the presider’s chair.  Or like the night someone saw him out front and called the cops: “No, don’t worry, officer.  We know Ralph.  He peeks in our windows all the time!”

Understandably, we’re all rather uncomfortable with idea of someone watching us in our private moments.  But if you think about it, modern society thrives on this very thing.  It used to be that we’d pry into the lives of the rich and famous, curious about what celebrities do behind the scenes.  But now, with things like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, where people are constantly posting personal photos, videos, and messages, you can spy on anyone—family, friend, or stranger—from anywhere at any time.

But all this virtual people-watching comes with a danger—and not just to our privacy.  It gives us a false sense of intimacy.  We can exchange quick messages and get a steady stream of visual updates from long-lost cousins or old college roommates…but without making any truly human contact.  We call lots and lots of people “friends”…but without doing the hard, messy work of friendship.  We know very personal details about their lives…but without actually getting involved in them.  We can watch from a safe distance and never have to take the risks required of entering into a relationship.

Our gospel today picks up right where we left off last Sunday, as Jesus told us, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”  Jesus speaks these words on the night before he dies—at the Last Supper. They’re a pretty clear indication of the lasting bond—the deep communion—that he hopes to establish with those who come to eat and drink at his table.  And it is at this same meal that Jesus gets down on his knees and washes his Apostles' feet.  Based on many Holy Thursdays, I can tell you first hand: that’s a pretty up close and personal experience!  But now, just in case we didn’t understand him, Jesus comes right out and says: “You are my friends.”

Let that sink in for a moment: God himself, the Creator of heaven and earth, Almighty Ruler of the entire universe, has chosen you to be his friend.

You see, the Lord was not willing to be a celestial “peeping tom,” as if watching humanity through a window or on a little glowing screen.  He wouldn’t stay off at a safe distance.  That’s because the God we believe in—one God in three Persons: the Most Blessed Trinity—is defined within himself by relationship: the Father eternally loves the Son, and the Son eternally loves the Father, and the Holy Spirit is their eternal love for each other. Love isn’t just something that God does; God is love.

And God made us in his very own image and likeness.   When he was creating the world and everything in it, he looked upon the sun and the moon, the water and the land, the plants and the animals and man, and saw that it was all good.  There’s only one thing that God said wasn’t good: “It isn’t good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18).  We were made for relationship; we were made for love.

In the fullness of time, God came to dwell among us—came in our own flesh and blood.  It’s hard to get much more intimate than that! And in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God opened up his heart to us.  God made himself incredibly vulnerable—literally loving us to death.  God did that so that we might know and love him—up close and personal.  But even more, it was so that God could know and love us—from the inside out.

In Jesus Christ, God has extended to you the ultimate friend request, “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you.”  God has chosen you, knowing everything about you—good and bad.

The question is, are you willing to take the risk of truly entering into this relationship?  Are you ready to say yes to being friends with God?

There are a few things you ought to know about this friendship before diving in.

First, you need to know that Jesus is not a friend like the others.  He tells us that he won’t be the sort of friend (unworthy of the name) who’s only looking out for what’s best for himself.  Such a person isn’t looking for a friend; he’s looking for a servant, a slave.  A true friend, we know, only wants what’s best for you.  It’s a great comfort when you have friends like that who’ve got your back.  But Jesus doesn’t only want what’s best for you; he knows what’s best for you.  That’s why he can say, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”  Just imagine someone else saying, “We can only be friends if you let me tell you what to do!”  No, Jesus isn’t being pushy…but his friendship is demanding: it demands complete trust—trust that he always wants and knows what is best for us.

And you need to know that this friendship can never just be about “me and Jesus.”  “This I command you: love one another.”  Loving our fellow Christians is not an optional part of the deal.  Jesus doesn’t say, “I suggest that you all try to get along”; he says, “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.”  In our “peeping tom” culture, we often settle for an easier substitute for love called “tolerance.”  It’s the supreme virtue of the modern age.  Tolerance isn't without merit, mind you, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.  How would it make you feel to hear someone say, “Yeah, I think I can tolerate you”?  And we certainly won’t hear Jesus saying, “As the Father tolerates me, so I tolerate you.” We’re not called to put up with each otherto merely coexist; we’re called to love.  Love is hard work.  Love often hurts—sometimes a whole lot.  But love for each other is the only convincing evidence that we have true friendship with Jesus.  So if we aren’t willing to reach out in genuine love to the person in the next pew, it’s little wonder we aren’t attracting more folks to come in and fill our churches.

And you also need to know that Jesus is a jealous friend—actually, as jealous as they come.  He’ll settle for nothing less than total commitment.  Jesus doesn’t want to be part of your life—one interest among many.  Jesus wants to be the very center of your life: its heart and soul; the relationship that causes all the rest of your life to make sense. And so he’ll be expecting you to spend some quality time with him.  We call that prayer. All prayer is good for this friendship, but especially fruitful are the Mass and prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, where Jesus is present in a real and particular way.  And, as in any friendship, that quality time together is best spent listening to each other: finding out what makes the other one tick; getting to know the hidden, intricate workings of one another’s hearts.

Ralph moved away last year when the Vale Haven home closed down.  I’m sure our guests don’t miss the obligatory warning about a “peeping tom.”  But I do miss waving to Ralph through the kitchen window, chatting with him out front on the sidewalk, and running in to him here in church.  (He only had coffee in my chair once…as far as I know!)

Let us work hard to overcome the safe distance that so often separates us from one another these days. Above all, let us boldly take the risk of saying yes to Jesus’ invitation to close, intimate friendship with him.

Jesus, teach us to love!
* * *
After Holy Communion:
Risen Jesus, through the great Sacrament of your Body and Blood, you have come yet again to be the honored guest of our souls.  By your self-sacrifice, teach us how to truly love one another.  By your abiding presence, give us the courage we need to walk in your friendship always.