Sunday, April 24, 2016

Very Revealing

   Fifth Sunday of Easter   C 
I think that most of you know
that half of my seminary training was in Rome.
Which means that I was studying theology in Italian—
a language I’d never studied before.
When I went to my first day of classes at the university,
I knew about enough of the Italian language to order a pizza—
but certainly not enough to discuss the finer points of the Gospel.

I remember sitting in the large lecture hall that first semester
when one of our professors
pulled out a white handkerchief from his pocket, shook it open,
and laid it over the watch on his wrist.
He then removed the handkerchief.
He must have done this six or seven times in a row,
all the while continuing with his lecture.
I was trying to keep up…but not really succeeding.
All I knew is that what he was doing
sure looked like a magic trick—and a pretty awful one,
because every time he lifted his hanky,
his watch was still there!

I later came to realize that what he was doing
was giving us a rather concrete lesson in revelation.
“Revelation” is one of those Church words
that gets thrown around rather freely,
but which many folks never stop to question:
“What does it really mean?”
To re-veal something literally means to remove the veil—
to uncover something
or (like Toto does in The Wizard of Oz) to pull back the curtain.
A revelation gives us a peek behind the scenes,
a glimpse of what’s really going on.

For us Christians, revelation is the word we use
for everything that God has told us about himself
(and, for that matter, about ourselves, too.)
Revelation is the way God lets us in on his plans.
It’s something God has done gradually through ages past—
and did perfectly when he sent us
his Only Begotten Son, the Word made flesh.
What is revealed isn’t stuff we can figure out by ourselves.
There’s no test, no experiment, by which you figure out God.
Revelation is a matter of questions we couldn't answer on our own.

If you open up your Bible,
you see that “Revelation” is also the name of a particular book—
the very last one of the bunch.
In our second readings,
we’ve been hearing passages from Revelation
all through this Easter season.
Many people stay away from the Book of Revelation.
They think it’s difficult to understand;
some even find it scary.
There’s a common misconception that it’s nothing other
than a graphic description of the end of the world.
The fact of the matter is that Revelation is a revelation.
If we’re patient with it, if we take it on its own terms,
we can discover that this book is meant
to remove the veil, to pull back the curtain, to uncover God’s plan,
to give us a glimpse of what’s really going on.

Consider what we’ve already seen
by reading just a few small pieces of the Book of Revelation
during the Easter season so far:
there’s a man in a long white robe wearing a golden sash;
he’s standing near a throne and an altar,
around which are burning candles;
every so often, someone opens up a large scroll (or a book)
from which to read;
surrounding them are crowds of people—wearing white robes, too—
who are worshipping and singing things
like “Amen” and “Alleluia” and “Holy, holy, holy,”
repeatedly bowing down and falling to their knees.
And just in case it’s not already obvious enough,
John tells us that he had this vision on the Lord’s Day—on Sunday.

What does that all sound like?  Mass, of course!
And that’s no accident!
Revelation is a revelation about what’s actually going on
when we come together to celebrate the Eucharist.
It tells us that this isn’t simply a get together
of like-minded people who take comfort in ritual.
No—this is where heaven meets earth, where God meets man.
What we feel is holy water sprinkled on our heads;
in truth, we are washed clean of sin
in the precious Blood of the Lamb of God.
What we see and smell is the smoke of incense;
in fact, it’s our prayers and praises that are rising on high.
What we taste is but a small scrap of bread;
in reality, we’re receiving the Body and Blood,
Soul and Divinity of the Lord Jesus—
once slain, but now living forever.
When we sing, it's not only with the choir upstairs,
but with countless choirs of angels!
What our senses can grasp
is engaging, moving, and beautiful on its own—
but there’s so much more going on here than meets the eye,
and it all points beyond itself to what’s really real.

What the Book of Revelation does for the Mass
it also does for the whole of the Christian life.
It was written to a people
facing deadly persecution for their faith in Jesus—
like Paul and Barnabas, undergoing many hardships
in order to enter the kingdom of God.
They needed encouragement; they needed hope.
And so Revelation tells them and tell us
that God has made his dwelling with the human race:
he lives—and lives among us!
This world we see—the old order,
marked by pain and tears and death and mourning—
is passing away.
God is making all things new:
a new heavens, a new earth, a new Jerusalem.
That’s not just a distant future to dream about;
it’s the present reality, though hidden from our sight.
The Book of Revelation reminds us
to keep our eyes and our minds and our hearts open
to all the many ways—big and small—
in which God is constantly drawing back the curtain,
removing the veil, and giving us a glimpse of his presence 
and of his plan for our salvation.

Revelation is not only God’s gift to us;
it’s also our solemn duty.
Just hours before he died on the Cross,
while still at the Last Supper table,
Jesus says,
“This is how all will know that you are my disciples—
this is the way you can help others to recognize
who I really am, why I came and lived and died and rose:
by the way you love one another.
As I have loved you, so you must also love one another.”

No, revelation isn’t magic.
It’s actually something far, far more amazing!
Watch for the ways God is lifting the veil,
and then hold back the curtain so that others can see, too.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

I Want To Hold Your Hand

I preached at the "Children's Church" Mass this Sunday, so I have notes for you rather than the full text of a homily...

   Fourth Sunday of Easter   C 

Why do people hold hands?
1. A man and a woman: to show their love
2. A parent and child, teacher and student: for safety
            (That’s why we don’t hold a stranger’s hand)
3. A family around the supper table: to pray

One of the ways Jesus talks about himself
            is as a shepherd—the Good Shepherd
What does that make us?  His sheep
In this Sunday’s Gospel:
            “No one can take [my sheep] out of my hand”

The way Jesus takes and holds our hands
            is connected with the three reasons we hold each other’s hands

1. Love: “The Father and I are one”
            Jesus’ love for God his Father is so strong
                        that it’s almost like they’re the same
            That’s what he wants for us, too
            Jesus loves us so much
                        that he wants us to be one with him

2. Safety: “I know them, and they follow me”
            Jesus loves us so much
                        that he wants to protect us, to always keep us safe
            He knows us—
                        what we need, what we’re scared of, what could hurt us
            We need to follow him—to listen to his voice

3. Prayer: “My sheep hear my voice”
            How do we hear Jesus’ voice?  When we pray
            A lot of the time, our prayer is talking to Jesus
            But we also need to listen,
                        so he can tell us he loves us and show us the right way
            (Have you ever noticed, even when we pray alone,
                        how we hold our hands together?)

2nd reading: St. John has a vision of heaven
            Filled with lots and lots of people
            From different countries and cultures
            Different colors and speaking different languages
            So many people they can’t be counted!

How did all those people get to heaven?
            By holding each other’s hand on earth
We have to stick together
            Not just during good and happy times
            Especially during hard and sad times
We need to love each other
We need to protect each other
We need to pray together and for each other
Just the way Jesus loves us, protects us,
            and speaks to us when we pray
What do we call the people who do that?  The Church

We want everybody to know that Jesus loves them,
            cares for them, and is ready to speak to them, right?
So we need to reach out to take other people by the hand
We need to lead them to Jesus so they can be sheep in his flock, too

To the adults…

4th Sunday of Easter: “Good Shepherd Sunday”
World Day of Prayer for Vocations
Usually think: a day for recruiting new priests and nuns!
Want you to think about it a little differently
When we hear vocation,
            we think “a calling”—a call reserved for a select few
We’re right about the calling part
But we’re wrong with the other half: everybody has one!
Vocation is about taking Jesus by the hand
            and letting him lead the way
And at the bottom of it,
            whether you’re married or single, a priest or a deacon,
                        a religious brother or sister, a monk or a nun,
                                    the call is pretty much the same:
When we’ve taken Jesus by the hand,
            we reach out to take somebody else by the hand
It’s a lesson we learn early in childhood…
            …but somehow think we’ve outgrown it as adults

This Sunday: two concrete ways
            to take the Good Shepherd by the hand
                        and help others do likewise

(1) 2nd collection today for “Inspire,” the Vocations Summit
Sunday, September 25, in Lake Placid
Support it generously now
Make plans to participate later

(2) Reach out to the “lost sheep”
[Kids pass our prayer cards now]
Pray it for someone who’s wandered away
Even more: reach out to take somebody by the hand
Packets by church doors with brochures and prayer cards
Take one and give it to a family member or friend
Hang it on a neighbor’s doorknob
Show them your love, lead them to safety, pray for their souls

Holy Year: Jubilee of Mercy
Holy Door of St. Peter's Basilica: image of Jesus the Good Shepherd
Reaching out his hand “to save what was being lost”
Grab Jesus by the hand
Help somebody else to do the same

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Do You?

   Third Sunday of Easter   C 

On the shores of the Sea of Galilee
(which St. John alternatively calls the Sea of Tiberius),
there is a small stone church marking the spot
where today’s gospel story is thought to have unfolded.
It’s called the Church of the Primacy of Peter.
Inside, in the middle of the floor, is a natural rock formation
that’s identified as the mensa Christi—the “table of Christ”—
believed to be where the risen Jesus served his apostles
a breakfast of bread and roasted fish.
In earlier times, the site was known as the Place of the Coals
in honor of Jesus’ beachside barbecue.
Our own Deacon Bryan Bashaw and his wife, Johnna,
are on pilgrimage in the Holy Land right now
and were visiting this church just the other day.

Outside that church,
against the dramatic background of the sea,
stands a statue depicting the exchange between Jesus and Peter:
Jesus is standing, with a shepherd’s staff in his hand
while Peter kneels before him,
receiving the mandate to tend and feed the Lord’s sheep.

But as beautiful as this sculpture is,
there’s something about it that seems a bit backwards to me.

Think about it: What did Jesus ask Peter?
“Do you love me?”
When else do we hear that question asked?
[Get down on one knee before a woman from the congregation]
And who, in those cases, usually gets down on one knee:
the one asking the question, or the one answering it?

It might sound strange to say so,
but Jesus is proposing to Simon Peter—
no, not marriage…
…but he is seeking a particular relationship with him,
and an intimate one, at that.
“Simon, can I be your #1?  Will you be mine?”
And recall the way Jesus has defined love:
first, in word—“There is no greater love than this:
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13);
and then, in deed—“accepting death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).

This question, this proposal,
isn’t for a lone fisherman.
That chapel on the seashore was built
to commemorate Peter as the first Pope.
Peter has “primacy”—the first place—as the leader
and visible point of unity for all who will follow Jesus.
Which implies that he’s never alone.
Peter stands for us all.
So what Jesus asks Peter,
he's also asking you and me on bended knee:
“Do you love me?  Do you love me more than these?”

Have you ever realized that before?
Because, just as it is with a marriage proposal,
this question demands an answer—
and if you say yes, it’s only the beginning:
the beginning of a lifelong commitment,
one that changes everything.

Just look at Simon Peter.
He who, standing by another charcoal fire
the night before Jesus died,
denied three times even knowing him,
is later found—after Easter, in the Acts of the Apostles—
rejoicing to suffer dishonor for the sake of Jesus’ name.
The same man who gathers his friends
and goes back to his nets and boat—
the career and lifestyle he knew before he ever met Jesus—
now leaves the old Simon behind for good
to become Peter, the Rock,
upon which the Church firmly stands.

But love—true love—does that, doesn’t it?
Falling in love, being in love,
knowing that you are loved and loved deeply—
it makes you do things you once thought were completely crazy;
it makes you do things you never thought you’d be capable of.
Love took a backwater fisherman
(and, apparently, not even a particularly good one, at that,)
and made him the chief shepherd
to lead and feed the flock of the Lamb of God.

We’re here again this Sunday 
at the mensa Christi—at the "table of Christ"
where the Lord himself is about to feed us—
not with a breakfast of grilled fish and toast,
but with his own Sacred Body and Precious Blood.
Although the menu be different,
at both meals the risen Christ is really and truly present,
and his question—his proposal—remains exactly the same:
“Do you love me?”

Jesus awaits your answer.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Trust in You

   Second Sunday of Easter - Divine Mercy   C 

I suspect that more than a few of you know
that our friend, Fr. Justin,
went back to India for a visit in January—
his first trip home since coming over to the States.
And I was very touched
when he returned with a little gift for me:
this book, entitled, St. Thomas in India.
You may recall Fr. Justin sharing with us
that the Christians of India trace their faith
all the way back to the apostle Thomas—
the same one who figures so prominently
in this Sunday’s gospel reading.
The story goes that, after Pentecost,
when all of the apostles dispersed to spread the Good News,
St. Thomas traveled far—all the way to southern India—
where he made many converts and eventually died a martyr.
A lot of modern minds have generally assumed
that this is a stirring pious legend…but not actual history.
This book goes into incredible detail,
examining the oldest written records and archeological evidence.
It’s conclusion? 
That St. Thomas really did preach and die in India.

I haven’t yet read the whole book,
but I find the entire premise rather ironic:
that it was written to remove our doubts
about what became of “doubting” Thomas!

On that first Easter Sunday—and still a week later—
we find the disciples of Jesus locked up together out of fear.
St. John tells us that they’re afraid “of the Jews”:
afraid that the same authorities
who had seen to Jesus’ crucifixion just a couple of days before
would now be trying to eliminate his followers, too—
especially since his body had gone missing.
It’s a reasonable thing of which to be scared!
But I’d hazard to guess it wasn’t the only cause of their fear.
The apostles had heard reports, not only of an empty tomb,
but that Jesus had been seen out and about.
Now, Jesus had spoken about resurrection…but what did that mean?
You see, there was a common enough belief in ghosts at the time.
And the belief was that,
if someone’s ghost came back from the dead,
it was for one purpose—and one purpose only: to take revenge.
And given how the apostles had by-and-large abandoned Jesus—
and the way one had even denied him—
you can imagine what was going through their minds:
We’re in big trouble now!
Little wonder they were locked up in fear!

So now we find Jesus within those locked doors.
We’re told that the apostles can feel his breath.
He invites Thomas to touch his wounded hands and side.
In other accounts of Jesus’ appearances after the resurrection,
we find him eating with his disciples—just as he used to do.
None of this is particularly ghost-like behavior!
And most crucially, we find in Jesus not even a hint of revenge.
Quite the opposite, actually!
To those who’d feared vengeance,
he says, “Peace be with you!”
To those who were locked up in their guilt,
he shows unexpected mercy—
and even sends them to be agents
of this mercy and forgiveness to others.

At the heart of the message of Divine Mercy—
on which the Church focuses her attention this Sunday—
is replacing all our doubts, our fears, our guilt,
with complete trust in Jesus Christ.
When our Lord appeared
to the Polish nun, St. Faustina Kowalska, in the 1930’s—
appearing much as he did to the apostles
during that first Easter octave—
he said to her, as she recorded in her diary:
“The graces of my mercy are drawn by means of one vessel only,
and that is—trust.
The more a soul trusts, the more it will receive.
Souls that trust boundlessly are a great comfort to me,
because I pour all the treasures of my graces into them.
I rejoice that they ask for much,
because it is my desire to give much, very much.
On the other hand, I am sad when souls ask for little,
when they narrow their hearts” (1578).
That truth is summed up in the signature
found at the bottom of every image of the Divine Mercy:
Jesus, I trust in you!

It’s only natural for us to want to see, to want to touch—
to have some tangible evidence, some visible proof,
of God and the things of God.
But despite the old cliché, seeing is not believing!
Even those like St. Thomas, like St. Faustina,
who had the great privilege of seeing the risen Lord,
still had to trust, still had to believe, still had to have faith!

I think today of Mother Angelica,
who died on Easter Sunday and whose funeral was Friday.
We all know her as the often feisty foundress of EWTN—
the largest religious media network in the world,
broadcasting in 144 countries to 230 million homes.
What we forget is that this cloistered nun,
knowing precious little about technology,
got her start with just $200
working out of a garage in rural Alabama.
“I’m not afraid to fail,” she used to say,
“[but] I’m scared to death of dying
and having the Lord say to me,
‘Angelica, this is what you might have done had you trusted more.'”

Many people’s observance of Divine Mercy Sunday
focuses on outward devotions—
a holy image, prescribed prayers, a sacred hour—
in order to make manifest their love for God.
But the message of Divine Mercy
is much more about God’s devotion to us:
the incredible lengths to which the Lord continues to go
to manifest his undying love for us.
When we know how much we’re loved,
it’s that much easier to trust.

This book goes to great pains in examining texts and artifacts
related to the mission of St. Thomas.
But the greatest evidence of the work of the apostle
is that there are Christians in India—
a thriving community, in fact,
which has very ancient roots, to be sure
but most importantly gives living witness to the faith today.

Let’s, you and I,
despite our doubts, despite our fears, despite our guilt,
put our complete trust in Jesus Christ and his Divine Mercy,
and be compelling evidence for others
that he is our Lord and God
indeed, risen from the dead.

Jesus, I trust in you!