Sunday, April 23, 2017

What's in a (Nick)Name?

   Second Sunday of Easter - Divine Mercy   A 
My full name is Joseph W. Giroux, Junior—since I was named after my Dad.  So very early on, because we just couldn’t have two Joe Girouxs in the same house, I was given a nickname within my family: Jo-Jo.  It was cute enough when I was really little…but I still have one uncle who, to the great delight of my siblings, persists in calling me Jo-Jo even now when I’m in my 40’s.  My 1st Grade teacher, Sr. Stephanie, consistently called me Joseph—a name only otherwise used if I was in big trouble at home.  And at the dentist’s office, in order to keep my records separate from my father’s, they called me Joey (and to this day I’m not sure why, because no one else anywhere called me Joey).   I had a few other nicknames during my college days…but we won’t get into any of those right now.


In the gospel reading this Divine Mercy Sunday, we hear the nickname of one of the Apostles: Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  “Didymus” is Greek for “twin”—apparently a nickname.  Whose twin was he?  Thomas probably wasn’t born a twin, since the name Thomas itself also means “twin” (which would be kind of like parents having a daughter and naming her Girl).  Some scholars speculate that Thomas was nicknamed The Twin because he bore such a strong resemblance to Jesus.  Maybe they cut their hair or trimmed their beards the same way.  Maybe they had the same eyes, or walked the same way, or talked the same way—we can only guess.

There’s more than a bit of irony, then, that Jesus’ double is the one who apparently has something more urgent to do on the most important day in the entire history of the world: that first Easter Sunday, when the risen Lord reveals himself to his Apostles.  It’s clear: a superficial, physical resemblance to Jesus isn’t sufficient.  It’s only a week later, when Thomas is now among the others, when Jesus appears again—wounds and all—and all of Thomas’ fears and doubts are dispelled, that The Twin begins to really look like Jesus. 

Thomas is brought to deep, deep faith as he realizes that everything Jesus has said is true.  He who was crucified for all to see has come back from the dead!  What complete trust Jesus has shown in his Father—throughout his preaching and ministry, and most especially in going to the Cross.  What complete trust Thomas can now put in Jesus: “My Lord and my God!”  In Jesus, Thomas has found Divine Mercy.  In Jesus he knows perfect peace.  With trust in the Lord, he can now truly be the Lord’s Twin: an instrument of mercy and peace for others.

Most of us can see a lot of ourselves in St. Thomas—in his questions and doubts.  Might we not also see ourselves in his nickname, The Twin?  We call ourselves Christians, and that—whether we realize it or not—is a nickname: we are “other Christs” or “little Christs.”  Which—if we’re going to be true to the name—means we ought to bear some notable resemblance to Jesus. 

We Catholics have a very visible religion: we do a lot of uniquely Catholic things and use a lot of uniquely Catholic stuff…which can give us the false assurance that, if we look Catholic and act Catholic, then we’re a pretty good disciple:  “Well, I wear a Cross around my neck and have a Rosary on my rearview mirror; I got my ashes on Ash Wednesday and palms on Palm Sunday and ate fish on the Fridays of Lent; I put out the manger at Christmas and colored eggs for Easter—so I must be doing OK as a Christian.”  But as Thomas the Twin makes clear, such exterior, physical things can never substitute for a relationship of faith and trust.  Resembling Jesus isn’t a matter of what’s on the outside; what’s on the outside must flow from within.


How can we do that—as individuals, and as a community?  In our first reading this Sunday, St. Luke gives us a snapshot of how St. Thomas and the other Apostles, along with the disciples who gathered around them, lived in those early days.  Since they were the ones closest to Jesus, their example is one we ought to examine and imitate.  The Acts of the Apostles says: They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.  There’s our recipe: four ingredients for being Twins of Jesus today.

[1] They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles.  The Apostles handed on to others what Jesus had handed on to them, and the first Christians knew that studying this was worth their time and attention.  Matthew Kelly, a popular Catholic speaker and writer, says that good Catholics ought to be lifelong learners.  But did learning about our faith stop for most of us when we received Confirmation?  Because we know there are 10 Commandments, 7 Sacraments, and 3 Persons in the Trinity, do we think we’ve got the Catholic faith all figured out?  When we stop studying the teachings of the Church, our faith grows either superstitious or vague—and, in neither case, can it really sustain us.  When was the last time you picked up your Bible?  Or read a good Catholic book or magazine?  Twins of Jesus never stop learning about the faith.

[2] They devoted themselves…to the communal life.  How many of you are at this Mass most every Sunday?  Now look around and ask yourself, of these folks whose hands are raised: How many of them do I know their name and something significant about their lives?  The first Christians didn’t just happen to all assemble in the same building at the same time every week or so.  They were intimately involved in one another’s lives.  When something good happened for one, everybody celebrated.  When somebody struggled, they all chipped in with support.  To say they were “brothers and sisters in Christ” wasn’t just a formal way of speaking.  Twins of Jesus care for each other as family.

[3] They devoted themselves…to the breaking of bread.  In the New Testament, “breaking bread” doesn’t mean sharing any ol’ meal; it means sharing the Lord’s Supper—celebrating the Holy Eucharist.  You might be thinking, “Whew!  At least we’ve got this one—we’re here for Mass!”  But do we have a clear sense of what it’s all about when we come together at the altar?  At a recent funeral Mass in the parish, something was said about the fact that we Catholics believe that the bread and wine really and truly become the Body and Blood of Christ and, therefore, that only Catholics who are properly disposed ought to come foreword to receive Holy Communion.  Not too long after, someone who was at that funeral posted something on Facebook saying, “I’ve been a Catholic all my life, though not an active one recently.  Am I the only one who’s never heard anything like this before?”  How we speak about the Blessed Sacrament, how we handle ourselves at Mass, how we handle the Sacred Host when we receive it—they all speak volumes about what we actually believe.  Twins of Jesus are clear: the Eucharist is the very heart, the very center of their lives.

[4] They devoted themselves…to the prayers.  The first Christians were people who prayed: alone and together, at home and in the Temple, every day and throughout the day.  They knew that prayer was absolutely essential for sustaining and strengthening their relationship with Christ and with his Church. They couldn’t even imagine living the Christian life without it.  Is it the same for us?  Or do we only pray on special occasions?  Or when we’re in desperate need?  Twins of Jesus stay in constant contact with him—and each other—in prayer.

They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.  And what was the result of this fourfold recipe for living as a Twin of Jesus?  Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles.… And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.  Wow!  And the very same can happen today!

The older I get, the more and more I resemble my Dad, whose name I bear.  It’s not that we look that much alike; in fact, as far as physical features go, I’ve pretty much only got his hairline.  But I catch myself thinking like him, and speaking like him, and acting like him…and I’m proud when I recognize that I’m mirroring the very best I see in my father.

My friends, the world today as much as ever needs us to be Thomases—to be Twins of Christ, whose name we bear.  The people of our day cannot see the risen Lord, but they can see us.  As individual Christians, and as a Catholic parish community, let us live in such a way that others will see us, but believe in Jesus—putting all their faith and trust in him.
    

Sunday, April 16, 2017

On the Run

   Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of the Lord   
For a lot of teenagers, their favorite class is gym class.  Was that the case for anybody here?  Not for me!  I wouldn’t say that I hated gym class…but there was one part of it that I did, and that was running.  I’m not sure why, but I have never, ever liked to run—and that’s only become even more so in all these years when I didn’t have to do it anymore.

At the beginning of Lent, I began a little daily exercise program—one that will continue even after these last 40 days.  I’m not getting any younger…and I wasn’t getting any smaller around the middle, either: it was time.  So there have been pushups and sit-ups and jumping jacks, and some rather unusual stretches with funny names that I do not care to publically demonstrate or describe.  Sometimes it leaves me a little sore, but all in all, it has left me feeling rather good. 

Even before I got started on Ash Wednesday, I looked ahead through the pages of this exercise program, and there it was in black and white: running.  Another priest who’s doing the same program at the same time assured me, “We don’t have to run until Easter Monday, so don’t worry about it yet.”  Well, it’s a good thing he studied theology and wasn’t a math major, because he was wrong.  At the beginning of the week, I realized: my first run would be on Good Friday.  Seems rather appropriate, doesn’t it?  As you can see, I survived!


While I’ve been panting through my little exercise routine, do you know what Fr. Scott has been doing?  He’s been training for a half marathon next Saturday.  It’s hard for me to fathom, but he’s one of those weird people who actually likes to run—and I think he’s even good at it.  Which is why I was mortified when he said he’d looked out the rectory window at 7 o’clock Good Friday morning and saw me doing my 200-meter sprints up and down Arsenal Green.  He might have just been being nice to his pastor, but I took it as a huge compliment when he said I looked pretty good out there.

Today, we hear of how two of the Lord’s first priests—the Apostles Simon Peter and John—went for a little run on that first Easter morning.  (If Fr. Scott and I were to do a little reenactment for you, you should have no trouble guessing who would be Peter and who would be John!)  They run at first hearing the news that Jesus’ tomb has been found empty.  Having gone there to pay her respects, Mary Magdalene finds the heavy stone rolled away…and is afraid the Lord’s body has been stolen.  It’s John who’s not only fleet of foot, and therefore first to peek inside, but quick to put the pieces together: this is the third day since Jesus’ crucifixion.  Jesus had promised—as had the scriptures before him—that on this day he would rise.  And raised with Jesus were all the hopes that also died on the Cross among those who believed in him.

As much as I hate to say it: I think running is the most natural thing of all for us Christians to do on Easter—actually, I’ll take it even further: running is the most natural thing of all for us Christians to do, period.

St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, in a passage I’ve only just begun to appreciate, tell us:
Do you not know that all the runners in the stadium run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly…. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor 6:24-27).
The Easter jog taken by Peter and John tells us that we need to run to Jesus.  If we have been baptized with Christ, then we have died and been buried with him.  At the Good News that he is risen, we need to run after him—not just on Easter Sunday, but every single day.  We are not followers of a nice idea, or a righteous moral code, or of a respected teacher who’s long been dead and gone.  We are disciples of one who died and was raised, giving proof that he was no mere mortal, but God in human flesh.  If we’re disciples of a man who is very much alive, then we need to be constantly following after him.  If we want to share in his victory over sin and death, if we want to win the unfading crown that awaits us on high, then we need to seek what is above—and not waste a minute doing so.  Run so as to win—to win a place in heaven.


If you were paying close attention, then you caught the fact that Peter and John weren’t actually the first ones to get moving on their feet that Sunday morning.  It’s Mary Magdalene who first springs into action, running from the tomb to spread the word about what she’d seen.  The Resurrection of Jesus—even before she understood it clearly—was something she just couldn’t keep to herself.  It ought to be likewise for us.  In this world where the news is so often so very bad—of terrorism or natural disaster or unemployment or deadly disease—we really shouldn’t keep the truly Good News to ourselves.  As we find Peter doing in our first reading, and as he’ll do for the rest of his life, we need to get out there and share it—and at top speed.  Our weary world desperately needs to hear about the hope and new life that only Christ can give.  When others see the joy, the faith, the courage, that gets us up and moving, they, too, will want to meet the Risen One who has changed our lives.  Run so as to win—to win souls for Christ.

Now, just 10 days ago, running was so far off my radar that I didn’t even own a decent pair of sneakers in which to do it.  (I almost wore my fancy new ones this morning just to show them off!)  So this may seem like pretty strange advice coming from me of all people, but: Start running this Easter, and don’t ever stop.  First, run to Jesus.  Don’t let him get out of your sight!  Stay close to him, chase after him, no matter how far or fast you have to go.  Because you won’t find him in the tomb anymore, run to him in the Church, in the Mass and the other Sacraments, in the Scriptures, in prayer, in loving service to your neighbor—to all those points of encounter where we’re sure to meet the risen Lord.  And then run for Jesus.  Don’t keep the gift of salvation to yourself.  Take him out with you into the world, into your daily life, and do so with a spring in your step. 

So if you happen to see me dashing through the park these next several weeks, please don’t point and laugh (although I hope the sight does bring a smile to your face).  And please, don’t stop me to talk: I’m probably running against the stopwatch, and I really don’t want to have to start all over again!

But if you notice me—of any other of his followers—running to Jesus or running for Jesus, then by all means, run with me.  Run with Mary Magdalene.  Run slow like Simon Peter, or fast like the beloved disciple.  Run so as to win.  Keep running, and don’t every stop.
  

Friday, April 14, 2017

Passionate

   Friday of the Passion of the Lord   

If I say the word “passion” today, on Good Friday, it has a particular meaning: the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.  And that meaning is true to the word’s origins, for our English term comes from the Latin, passio, meaning, “to suffer,” or, “to endure.”

But if I say the word “passion” on almost any other day of the year, it means something quite different.  I can say, for example, that Fr. Scott has a burning passion for gardening.  (Has he told you yet that his garlic is up?  I think he walks past it about 10 time a day to see if it’s grown any more.)  In that sense, passion means enthusiasm, zeal, a strong feeling toward something.  Or, if I saw George and Anne Marie in each other’s arms out in the parking lot after this liturgy, I might say I found them in a passionate embrace.  That use of passion points to yet another sense: of intense, personal, intimate love—particularly of the romantic kind.


I cannot tell you historically how we got from suffering to enthusiasm to romance in the mutation of a single word over the years.  I’ve looked all week, and have found no convincing explanation.  But while I can’t make the historical connection, I hope to help you see this evening a deep spiritual one between these three meanings of “passion.”

Have you ever died for someone?  Of course not…or you wouldn’t be here to answer the question!  But if you were to do so, it’s safe to say you’d need to have a strong feeling about that person, or an enthusiasm for their cause, in order to give up your life on their behalf.  And so, indeed, was the case for Jesus.  We often have an image of Jesus being rather stoic in the face of his suffering and death…but it hardly seems that could have actually been the case.  He was anything but a passive victim—not of the angry crowds, nor of Judas’ betrayal, nor of the Jewish leaders, nor of the Roman authorities.   “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father gave me?” Jesus asks a sword-wielding Peter.  And to irritated Pilate he retorts, “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you….”  Jesus’ suffering is a willful choice—one made with great zeal for his mission.  His is a deliberate, passionate decision to be obedient unto death.

It’s easy enough to see how the Passion of Jesus is connected to the passion of enthusiasm…but how can we connect the death of this virgin-born, single celibate man with the passion of romance?  But I tell you, when the Cross is held before us in a few moments, my friends, we will behold the most perfect image of a wedding that the world has ever seen.  Here we have the marriage of heaven and earth, of God and man.  This blessed union began at the moment of his conception, when the Son of God took human flesh in Mary’s womb.  But it’s on the Cross that we see this wedding most clearly displayed.  On the Cross, we behold God doing something that would have been absolutely impossible for God if he were not united as one with man: we see God die.  And on the Cross, we also see man accomplish something that would have been completely impossible for man if he were not united as one with God: we see man achieve salvation—saving you and me from sin, saving us from death.  And this blessed union is one of pure, passionate love.  (It’s no accident that in Latin, Jesus’ final words from the Cross—“It is finished”—are, Consummatum est, literally, “It is consummated.”) 


We’ve of course heard, time and again, that Jesus died out of love for us, and we assume that that means he loved us all generally, generically, as so many members of the whole human race.  But the love which led him to die was more personal, more intense, more intimate, more passionate, than any other romance the world has ever known.  When he was nailed to his Cross, he had you, Ralph, on his mind.  And when he breathed his last, he held you, Lindsay, in his heart.  If you, Becky, were the only other human being on the planet, he would have died for you, anyway.  And if he had to do it all over again just for you, Brent, he would.


Jesus went to his Passion with great passion and great passion.  And believing that really ought to change everything, shouldn’t it?

I doubt I’m the only one, when faced with a difficult challenge, with the prospect of suffering, with something I’d rather not endure, who hesitates and pulls back.  In fact, I’m sorry to say, I often enough will wait to see if the problem might somehow fix itself or just go away.  But when I’ve been able to face a challenge or some suffering head on, I’ve been amazed at what I’ve been able to achieve—far beyond what I thought was possible.  And that’s because, by not running from the suffering, I’ve been in the place where God wants me to be, and doing the thing that God wants me to do, and so God fills that moment with his grace.  I’m not suddenly some sort of superhero, but God is accomplishing his work in and with and through me.

Such hesitation, such resistance, such holding back, is the opposite of both passion and passion—and it’s not the way of life to which you or I, as followers of Christ crucified, are called.  As long as we’re in this world, suffering comes to us.  Are we prepared to face it with great zeal for our God-given mission?  Are we ready to endure it out of deep love for our Savior?

Having walked once more with Jesus on the way of his Cross this Good Friday, let us accept any small share we might have in the Lord’s Passion with both passion and passion.
   

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Sunrise, Sunset

   Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord   A 
On September 17, 1787, the U.S. Constitution was signed in Independence Hall in Philadelphia.  Winning the Revolutionary War had gained them independence, but forming the 13 colonies into a single nation was a battle all it’s own.  As the last members of the Constitutional Convention signed the document, Benjamin Franklin—speaking to James Madison and a few others nearby—pointed to the chair on which President Washington had been seated during the proceedings.  At the top of the chair’s high back was painted a golden sun peaking over the horizon.  Franklin noted that it has always been a particular challenge to artists to depict the difference between a rising and a setting sun.  Throughout the Convention, he had many times looked behind the President and, due to the back and forth of the debate and his own hopes and fears for how things might end, was unable to tell whether this sun was rising or setting on the young country.  “But now at length,” said Franklin, “I have the happiness to know, that it is a rising, not a setting sun.”


Sunrise, or sunset? 

That question has endured—and the answer has varied—throughout our nation’s history.  We’ve seen times of war, and times of peace.  We’ve witnessed the rise and fall of both our material fortunes and our moral integrity.  That question can also be asked on a global scale—in times like our own, for example, which are marked by such impressive technological progress, but also by gas attacks and missiles in Syria, a terrorist truck driver in Stockholm, and (just this morning) by the bombing of churches in Egypt.  Likewise, it can be asked in our individual lives, as we find ourselves shifting between joy and sorrow, trials and triumphs, sickness and health.

Sunrise, or sunset? 

The question can also be asked here in the Church.  We rightly look to the Church to be a sure and steady anchor in an often turbulent world.  But changing times, apparent right here in our own parish, can leave us uncertain: clinging to the past, and a bit fearful about the future; wondering if we’re standing on the threshold of something exciting and new, or if we can only expect gradual, continuing decline. 

Sunrise, or sunset? 

That question is not unique to Christians today, for it surely must have been asked by the disciples who witnessed firsthand the events we commemorate during this Holy Week.  What elation, what expectancy there must have been for the future when they walked alongside Jesus, who was riding like royalty into the holy city as the exuberant crowds waved palms of victory and shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  But what dejection, what desolation, only days later, to behold him dragged as a criminal through now jeering crowds to be nailed to a Roman cross outside Jerusalem’s walls, hanging beneath the taunting, ironic charge laid against him: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”


Sunrise, or sunset? 

My friends, we Christians are without a doubt people of the sunrise.  From ancient times, it’s been Catholic tradition to build churches with their altars toward the East.  (Such is the case with all four of our churches here in St. André’s Parish.)  Our buildings are literally “oriented”—turned toward the Orient, the East, the land of the rising sun.  And that’s because we have something so much greater than Benjamin Franklin possessed.  Franklin had optimism: a positive regard for the future based on what human beings had been able to accomplish in the past.  But we Christians have hope, which is founded not on any mere human achievement, but on the eternal faithfulness of God.  No matter the surrounding darkness, no matter the threatening gloom, we are sure the sun is rising—believing that humility is a path leading to exultation; that life is far, far stronger than death; that even should we feel abandoned, in Jesus we have truly encountered God-with-us.

Benjamin Franklin was inspired by a painted sun on a wooden chair—one you can still see in Philadelphia.  But we draw our hope from the world’s true Light, once nailed to the wood of the Cross…but there no more.

During these days of Holy Week, and through every circumstance of life, let us keep our faces turned toward the East.  Even when within the dim shadow of death, we know the Sun is rising!
  

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Waking Up

   Fifth Sunday of Lent   A 
Readings


Four or five years ago, when my niece was quite young, she was headed back to the pew with my sister-in-law who had just received Holy Communion.  My niece paused in front of the side altar, above which is a larger-than-life crucifix.  She looked up at the Lord’s face, saw his eyes closed tight, and called out loudly, “Jesus, wake up!”


Just a couple of weeks before Easter, when we’ll reflect on the Lord’s own three day rest in the tomb, we hear the story of how he woke his friend, Lazarus, from the sleep of death.  But while the miracle is the raising of Lazarus, the account focuses most of its attention on his two sisters—Martha and Mary—and their interactions with Jesus.

We know these two women from elsewhere in the gospels—specifically, the story told by Luke of the day they welcomed Jesus as a guest in their home (10:38-42).  Some of the same personality traits that came through when they served as hostesses to Jesus also come through here as with him they mourn their brother.  Remarkably, both Martha and Mary say they very same thing—word-for-word—to Jesus when the see him: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  But they sure seem to mean it in very different ways…

Martha is the first to speak to Jesus.  When she hears he’s approaching Bethany, she springs into action, running out to meet him even before he steps into town.  You can practically see her shaking him by the shoulders, “If only you’d been here, we all know that Lazarus wouldn’t have died.  Where have you been?  What have you been waiting for?  We can’t waste another moment—it’s been four days already!  So here’s what you should do…”  Despite her fervent emotion, Martha’s conversation with Jesus continues on in rather stilted, formal fashion.  Her responses to the Lord sound an awful lot like ones she's memorized out of the Catechism: “Of course the dead will rise, on the last day—everybody knows that.  Yes, I do believe that you are (a) the Christ, (b) the Son of God, (c) the one who is coming into the world…just like it said on—what was it?—page 57, I think.”

She gives the distinct impression that, if she just knows the right stuff, says the right words, and does the right things, then God will of course do precisely what she wants.

Mary’s approach is quite different, to say the least.  To start, Mary begins by staying at home.  No—she’s not being standoffish, nor crippled by her grief.  When Martha returns to tell her that Jesus is asking for her, Mary gets up and goes quickly to greet him.  And what does she do when she sees him?  She doesn’t grab him by the shoulders…but falls at his feet: “If you had only been here, Lord, Lazarus would not have died.  But you weren’t here.  And, while I don’t begin to understand it, I trust that what has come to pass is within God’s plan—just as I trust that whatever you are about to do now will be for the best.  You know how we love you!  And we know how you love us…”  No stiff back-and-forth follows.  Jesus is deeply moved, weeps with her, and asks, “Where have you laid him?”

Mary still mourns in the face of death, but she doesn’t feel the need to try and take charge of the situation…because she believes, even if it’s not quite obvious how, that God has everything well under control.

In effect, Martha says, “Jesus, wake up!” while Mary says, “Jesus, if you please, wake him up, wake me up, wake us all up…”


The difference between these two sisters is more than a study in family dynamics.  It presents us with the two basic ways that we Christians approach our faith in Jesus. 

Some of us get the idea that, at Baptism, we didn’t so much become disciples of the Lord as his “senior advisors”: “It’s clear that you need a little guidance in this matter, so let me tell you how things ought to be done…”  If we think, say, and do things by the rules, then God simply has to give us what we ask for…right?

But then there are those who don’t approach the Lord as if negotiating a business transaction; they do so, rather, as relating to a dear, dear friend.  They put their full confidence in God, believing he’s always got their best interests at heart—and that he knows what’s best far better than they ever could.  Instead of giving the Lord direction, they seek it from him.

Which are you?

While most of us still have our Martha moments, and many of us are striving to be more and more like Mary, we are all of us, in the end, most like Lazarus.  We are all dead in our sins, bound tightly by the burial bands of our transgressions, lying in wait for someone to set us free and raise us to life again.

Since the Church’s earliest days, this season leading up to Easter has been one marked by repentance.  Now is the perfect time to ask the Lord to resurrect all that has died within us.

This Thursday-Friday, we are again observing, “The Light is ON for You,” with confessions available a couple of hours Thursday evening and all day Friday, and Eucharistic adoration straight through the night.  (The full schedule can be found in your bulletin, along with a brief guide to confession and an examination of conscience.)  Like Martha, throw yourself down at the feet of Jesus, who is really and truly present before you in the Most Blessed Sacrament.  Speak frankly with him—not simply in words you memorized as a child, but in ones that come right from the heart.  Renew your trust in his love and mercy, which have the power to restore you to life.  Then roll away the stone, and expose your death-dealing sins to him in the Sacrament of Penance.  It’s probably been more than four days—maybe more like 4 or 14 or 40 years—so there’s likely to be a stench.  Don’t worry—Jesus is not concerned at all.  Just listen as he calls to you, “Come out!  Don’t stay asleep in your sins!  Don’t remain dead in that tomb!  Come out to a new life!”

Jesus, wake us up!

Sunday, March 26, 2017

I Can See Clearly Now

   Fourth Sunday of Lent   A 


I distinctly recall the first time I failed an exam—and how it turned out to be one the very best things that could have happened to me.  I was in the 4th Grade…and I failed my eye exam with the school nurse.   (Despite the apparent evidence of this bright rose vestment I’m now wearing, the diagnosis wasn’t that I’m colorblind but nearsighted.)  Within a few weeks, I was off to the optometrist, and a few weeks after that, I was off to pick up my new glasses.  I have very vivid memories of the ride home with my mom in our big ol’ station wagon that day.  We were traveling very familiar streets, but I was really seeing so many things for the very first time—not just minute details, mind you, but really big things…like houses and even distant mountains!  I remember, too, going to Mass that next Sunday.  My home church has many paintings of angels and saints on the ceiling; previously, they’d simply been swirled colors and rough forms, but now I could see the features of their faces and the folds of their clothes.  All these things that’s seemed so new and exciting weren’t really “new” at all; it’s just that they’d only now become visible to me.


In a small way, that must have been what it was like for the man born blind when his eyes were opened by Jesus.  Did you happen to notice how he failed an exam, too?  His neighbors and the Pharisees simply refuse to accept the answers he gives in response to their many, many questions…but that also works out in his favor, for in the process he gains clear sight not just once, but twice.

After his cure, the formerly blind man is questioned by his neighbors, “How were your eyes opened?”  He responds, “By a man named Jesus…”  The Pharisees then question him, “What do you have to say about this Jesus, since he opened your eyes?’  And responds, “He is a prophet.”  Finally, he’s questioned by Jesus himself: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  “Who is he, sir, that I might believe in him?”  “You have seen him, the one speaking with you.”  “I do believe, Lord,” and he worshipped him.  (He finally answers one question right!)

Take note of the progression in the man’s answers about the identity of Jesus: from a man (another guy like himself)…to a prophet (someone sent by God)…to the Lord (that is, God himself); from a notion based on the hearsay of others (how else did he learn even Jesus name, since he never introduces himself?)…to an initial opening to faith (“he must be from God if he was able to heal me”)…to a deep, personal commitment (Jesus is no longer a stranger, but has become the center of his life).

While the man’s bodily eyes were opened instantly, the eyes of his heart are only gradually opened to the truth about Jesus Christ.  But as the man born blind grows toward better vision and greater light, his neighbors and the Pharisees are sinking into worse blindness and deeper darkness. 

Take note, now, of the progression in questions and doubts of the neighbors and Pharisees.  They begin by questioning the identity of the blind man: “Maybe it’s someone else who just looks like him.”  Then they question Jesus’ identity and motives: “He must be a sinner, since he heals on the Sabbath.”  They ridiculously question the man’s parents: “Are you sure this is your son?”  They even try to get the blind man to deny his cure: “It’s unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of someone born blind.”  In the end, they express doubts even about themselves: “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?”

While the man was born blind through no fault of his own, these others are going blind because of their persistent, stubborn refusal to see.


Unfortunately, this effort to protect what’s familiar and hang on to an illusion of control, this fearful resistance in the face of something new and unknown, this rejection of Jesus and his teaching because it challenges us and our way of thinking, is a tragedy often repeated, even in our own day.

We’re awfully sensitive at this time of year to the steady increase of daylight.  It’s pretty nice now that it’s still light out after 7:00pm, isn’t it?  And each day, the sun comes up just a few moments earlier.  This regular cycle of dawn and dusk, of sunrise and sunset, makes it clear: we’re always either gaining light, or losing it.  There’s no standing still.  And what’s true in the daily round is also true—as we see in this Sunday’s gospel—of our spiritual lives.

We were all born blind beggars, with the mud of sin covering our eyes.  And as we began our journey of faith, our walk with the Lord, Jesus sent us to wash—not in the Pool of Siloam, but in the healing waters of Baptism.  In the early church, Baptism was also known as “illumination” or “enlightenment.”  That’s why we read this particular story in preparation to renew our baptismal promises at Easter.  Baptism fills our hearts and minds with the light of truth, shedding light on our earthy life and enabling us to walk toward the glorious vision of God.  But unlike the day I got glasses, our sight is restored gradually.  Ours is first the faith of childhood, a “borrowed” faith, that rests on what others have told us about Jesus.  As we grow into the faith of spiritual youth, we begin to make it our own, to express our own convictions, but still maintaining a safe and respectful distance.  Finally, we reach Christian maturity, where we put our full trust in Christ and make him the very center of our life.  This process of conversion is ongoing—it begins at Baptism, and lasts our whole life long.

This midway point in Lent is the perfect time for us to consider:  In terms of daylight, where is my spiritual life right now: is the sun rising ever higher and brighter, or sinking toward the western horizon?  In terms of growth and maturity, where is my faith at this point: still borrowed from others, or growing in my own conviction, or quite personal and deep?  How clear is my vision?  Where is God calling me to go with him, and how is he calling me to get there?

God naturally sees things differently than we do.  That’s certainly made apparent when Samuel goes to seek out and anoint young David—no longer to shepherd a flock of sheep, but to shepherd God’s chosen people: “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance, but the Lord looks into the heart.”  Left on our own, we don’t see that well.  But God takes us beyond the limits of our fallen nature by his supernatural gifts—by grace.  The Lord’s own light illumines our minds and enlightens the eyes of our hearts.  We can begin to see life and the world and other people, in a least a small way, from God’s perspective.  The disciples understandably asked Jesus, “Why was this man born blind?”  And Jesus responds, “That the works of God might be made visible.”  When, by grace, the Lord opens our eyes, it’s like everything is new as we begin to recognize his fingerprints on everything.  The truth is, God has been present and active in our lives all along…it’s just that now we can see it.

The wonders of modern science—whether with spectacles like mine or a surgeon’s laser—can often do for our bodily eyes what once required a miracle.   But only God can give sight to the eyes of the heart.  As we continue to make our way to Easter, let us ask Jesus for the illuminating grace we need to always walk as children of the light.
    

Saturday, March 25, 2017

All generations shall call me blessed...?

I got a most usual request last Sunday: to pose for an icon.  No, not an icon of me (don't be silly!), but  one of Blessed Marco d'Aviano--a Capuchin priest whose preaching rallied the Christian troops during the Siege of Vienna (1683-1689) and who was beatified in 2003.  You can read more about him here.

We didn't happen to have a Capuchin habit lying around, so we had to make due with an approximation.  But I did have the beard the iconographer was looking for.  She seemed pleased with my "modeling" debut...


Oh, to not only pose as a saint, but to be one...

Blessed Marco, pray for us!
   

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Holy Patron, Thee Saluting

I'm a few days getting this things up on the blog...but...Monday was the feast of my holy patron, St. Joseph.  In honor of his solemnity, I have to things to post: one fun, one funny.

On Sunday evening, we had our new men's group, André's Brothers, over for Vespers and dinner.  It was a most enjoyable evening: good food and good fraternity.  Not to mention I put together my best looking St. Joseph's Table yet:





That was fun.  This is VERY funny:


Sorry the print's so small; you can see it full size here.  (Trust me: it's worth visiting the page!)
   

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Thirsty

   Third Sunday of Lent   A 

Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst.

As the snow was falling Tuesday evening (you remember that little dusting we got, right?), Fr. Scott and I settled in to watch a DVD—a documentary called, “The Hungry Heart.”  It’s about a small town like ours: St. Alban’s, Vermont, only about two hours east of here on the other side of Lake Champlain.  It tells the story of a doctor there and his efforts to help the many young people of his community who’ve fallen prey to an epidemic of prescription drug abuse.  (The DVD was lent to us by a local addictions counselor who said, “If you want to know what happening in Malone, watch this…”)


The most compelling part of the documentary for me was a string of clips of these young addicts talking about why they became addicted to drugs—not the specific details of how it came about, but what was going on inside of them.  Now, these are not “bad” kids, but most of them grew up in pretty tough situations: broken families; in and out of foster homes; deep poverty; unable to find work; parents who were themselves abusing drugs.  This difficult start to life left them feeling a great emptiness inside.  There was a hole, a hunger, a thirst, a deep longing, a gnawing ache, right in the middle of their being that left them feeling incomplete, and led them to question their self-worth and their reason for being alive.  When someone offered them drugs for the first time, those drugs did precisely for their spirits and souls what they are prescribed to do for our bodies: they didn’t actually eliminate the problem, but they did take away all of the pain.  Unfortunately, these young people didn’t realize they were only adding to their troubles as they hid from the hurt.

While I listened to them, one after the other, saying almost exactly the same thing, my eyes started to tear up.  I wanted to jump right through the TV screen and say, “That emptiness you’re feeling?  I know exactly where it comes from…and I know what will fill it up!”

Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst.

Do you remember the first reading from a couple of Sundays ago?  It involved Adam and Eve, a cunning serpent and some forbidden fruit.  It was the story of the Original Sin—one with which we’re all too familiar, since we’ve all been dealing with its sad consequences ever since.  But have you ever wondered what life was like for Adam and Eve before that incident at the tree?  Theologians call that earlier state of affairs, when everything was still working as intended, “Original Holiness” or “Original Justice.”  In one place, the book of Genesis describes it a bit more poetically, implying that, in the cool of the evening, Adam and Eve walked with God in the garden (cf. 3:8).  Just imagine, a late day stroll, hand-in-hand with God in Paradise!   Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?  But that’s exactly what we were made for.  God created us to be in such an intimate friendship with him.  We were built for relationship, for union, for communion with God.  Which is why Original Sin deals such a deep blow to our original design.  When our relationship, our communion, with God was broken by sin, we were left with a hunger, a thirst, an ache, a big empty hole.

We see this in the Samaritan woman who speaks to Jesus at Jacob’s well.  She’s startled that Jesus knows her so well: “You have had five husbands, and the man you’re with now is not you husband.”  It kind of makes you wonder if it’s really water she was after, having spotted a handsome, single man sitting all alone in the bright sun by a watering hole…  (“Can I get you a drink?  Do you come here often?”)  This woman indeed has a deep, deep thirst, but she seems unable thus far to recognize it for what it truly is.  And so, in the words of the old Country song, she keeps “lookin’ fer luv in all the wrong places.”  They’ve only just met, but Jesus seems to already know her much better than all the other men in her life; in fact, he knows her perfectly, and seems to care for her anyway.  He’s waiting there, not considering how he might take advantage of her, but instead offering to quench her thirst.


So the woman runs off, and tells everybody she knows about this Jesus: “I just met the most amazing guy over at the well!”  “Oh,” they must have said, “we’ve heard about you ‘amazing guys’ before…”  “No,” she insists, “you have to trust me: this one is different from all the rest.  He’s able to see things in me—good, true, and beautiful things in me—that I haven’t been able to see in myself.  I think he’s the one I’ve been looking for all along.  Actually, I think he’s the one we’ve all been waiting for.”

Did you catch the little detail of what she did when she ran off?  She left her water jug behind.  She won’t be needing it any longer.

Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst.

Have you ever noticed this hole inside yourself?  Since the Fall, it’s there in every one of us—no matter how hard we try to ignore it, or wish it away, or attempt to fill it up.  Some of the cheap counterfeits for living water are rather obvious, such as drugs or alcohol, promiscuity or pornography.  They’re all just different ways we take a crack at numbing the pain.  But there are other distractions which are a bit more subtle—or, at least, more socially acceptable.  Some of us just throw ourselves into our work: “If I just work harder!  If I just keep myself busy!”  For some of us, it’s sports—whether playing them or watching them: “As long as I’m in the game, nothing else matters!”  And then there are all those glowing screens in our lives—television, internet, cell phone, video games—whisking us away from the real world to a virtual reality.

My friends, we need to get in touch with this deep longing.  We need to acknowledge and repent of all the false gods with which we’ve attempted to satisfy our true need.  We need to recognize there’s only One who can fill the hole, who can satisfy the hunger, who can quench the thirst—and that’s the One who made us, and the One for whom we were made.  He fits in that empty space perfectly: square peg in a square hole.

Did you catch that the Samaritan woman isn’t the only one who comes to Jacob’s well thirsty that day?  So does Jesus. “Give me a drink,” he says to her.  We thirst out of deep need: something crucial’s missing for which we were made.  But God thirsts, too.  God’s thirst is not out of need; God is in need of nothing, which is a big part of what makes him God!  But God thirsts out of deep love: desiring that relationship, that communion with us, which was his plan for you and me from the very beginning. 

Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst.

This Lent, let us reckon with the thirst we find within ourselves, and the many sinful ways in which we try to satisfy it, and instead go looking for love in all the right places.  In so doing, we’ll begin to satisfy the thirst we meet in Jesus, that thirst found in the very heart of God: for our faith, for our love, for our souls.
   

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Directions

   Second Sunday of Lent   A 

It’s not just a cliché to say that most men are too proud to ask for directions.  A few years back, a British insurance company did a study which determined that the average male motorist in England drives an extra 276 miles every year simply because he won’t ask for directions.  The same study also said that four out of ten men had told their passengers they knew exactly where they were going…even when they didn’t.

Where are we going?


That would certainly have been a legitimate question for Abram to ask when God called him to leave his homeland and head out.  And it would have been perfectly reasonable for Peter, James, and John to ask the same when Jesus led them up the mountain to be transfigured before them.  (Actually, it’d have been fair for them to ask it again when they were coming back down, too.)

Where are we going?

There are certainly answers to that question which we can plot on a map .  God was taking Abram to the land of Canaan—the Promised Land, which would be the inheritance of his descendants.  And that mountaintop excursion for the three Apostles was but a consoling detour on their way to the holy city, Jerusalem, where Jesus would soon suffer and die before rising from the dead.

Where are we going?


It’s a question that also runs a good bit deeper, doesn’t it?  It strikes at the very heart of human existence.  What’s the meaning, the purpose, of life?  What’s it all about?  Why are we here?  Where are we going?

For us Christians, the deceptively simple answer is, “We’re going to heaven.”  God has made us for a life beyond this one, and desire that we live with him forever.  But while we hold out hope for heaven, that destination can seem impossibly far off.

St. Paul puts it another way when he writes to Timothy: “God called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to his own design.”  Like Abram, like the Apostles, the Lord is leading us somewhere, and it’s his path, his plan, his map that will get us there.  God is calling us to be holy.

We each have a specific vocation from God: to be a priest, a deacon, or a religious; to be a husband, a wife, to be a parent, or single.  And within these vocations, our calling is even more unique: to be part of this family, to serve in this parish, to accomplish this work.  But there is also a general vocation, a common calling, which belongs to all who follow Jesus, and that’s the call to holiness, the call to be saints. 

“What?  Me?  A saint?”  We can’t forget that “saint” literally means, “a holy person,” and that the only people in heaven are, by definition, saints.  And we all want to get to heaven, don’t we?

Fr. Murphy walks into a bar, and starts asking each man he meets, “Do you want to go to heaven?”  One-by-one, as they say yes, he has them line up along the wall.  The priest comes up to Eddie O’Toole and asks him as well, “Eddie, do you want to go to heaven?”  And Eddie answers, “No, Father.”  “I can believe this!” shouts the priest.  “You mean to tell me that, when you die, you don’t want to go to heaven?”  “Oh,” said Eddie, “yes, when I die…but I thought you were putting together a group to go right now.”

To be called to holiness is to be headed for heaven.  They’re one and the same.

Where are we going?

Life often feels like we’re on a great big treadmill, doesn’t it?  There’s lots of movement, lots of activity, we’re worn right out…but there’s no real progress, we’re not getting anywhere, we’re not moving ahead.  We can’t really expect to travel forward if we aren’t fixed on our destination.  How do we supposed to arrive somewhere if we’re not clear about where we’re going?  Lent is an opportunity given us each year to set things on the right track again.

What’s true for individuals is also true for the Church.  For the past year, we’ve been in a process of pastoral planning, not only here in the parish but across the Diocese, that’s meant to reckon with this question: Where are we going?  Sure—we can see it simply as a matter of dealing with some hard facts: that we have fewer priests and fewer people in the pews, which means we can no longer keep doing business as usual.  But we mustn’t miss the blessed opportunity that this situation presents: a chance to refocus our vision and our efforts as people of faith, asking not, “How do we want things to be?” but, “Where does God want us to go?”  If we can’t answer that fundamental question, then none of our practical conclusions make much difference at all.

Where are we going?

Some spiritual reading I was doing the other day served as a good reminder that all the duties of a priest—celebrating Mass and the Sacraments, preaching and teaching, caring for God’s people—is all about “leading them to sanctity.”  I was struck by that simple word, “leading.”  Leading implies that we’re going somewhere.  Most often, my ministry feels more like that of a caretaker, expected to preserve things the way I found them, to keep things going the way they’ve always been done before.  That, my friends, is a perfect recipe for just spinning our wheels.  Instead, the priest’s call is to be a leader: giving direction to a people on the move; keeping the Promised Land, the heavenly Jerusalem, in sight; constantly discerning, “Where ought we be going, and how do we get there?”

We—men and women, priests and parishioners—live at a time when we can’t afford to be too proud to ask directions from the Lord.  Asking God for direction isn’t a sign of weakness!  It’s a matter of putting our full trust in him…and that’s the only sure way forward.


St. John Vianney was headed on foot to his new parish in Ars, France, on a foggy February day.  Afraid he’d gotten lost, he asked a young boy for directions.  “You’ve shown me the way to Ars,” said the holy priest.  “Now I’ll show you the way to heaven.”

Where ARE we going?