Sunday, April 30, 2017

Correct Me If I'm Wrong

   Third Sunday of Easter   A 

Do any of you like to be corrected when they’re wrong?  No one?  I didn’t think so.  Me neither!  And have you ever noticed that correction can be harder to take from some people than others?  I have to say that I absolutely hate it when Fr. Stitt is right. For some reason, when we don’t agree and his side proves true, it really gets to me.  And it happens often enough, too, because he’s so smart!  (I’d ask you to keep this a secret between us…but he already knows it.)

Now just imagine what it’d be like to be corrected by Jesus.  That might even be a pleasant experience, right?  He’d certainly be kind and gentle.  He wouldn’t make you feel uncomfortable.  Maybe Jesus would just let your error slip by.  Right…?  The way some folks talk about Jesus, you could get that impression.  But let’s take a closer look at this Sunday’s gospel.

The story is from the first Easter Sunday.  Two of Jesus’ followers, in light of the last three very difficult days, are headed out of town: they’ve turned their backs on Jerusalem, turned their backs on the Cross, even turned their backs on the news of an empty tomb, and are trying to get as far away as their feet will take them before the sun goes down.  They’re discouraged.  The feel defeated.  They’re filled with questions.  They’ve lost hope.

It’s then that Jesus joins them on the road—but they do not recognize him.  Their first question to him is, “How could you possibly not know about all that has been going on?”  But after recounting their version of events—their tale of woe—the question seems to be: And just how is anybody supposed to make sense of that?

Did you catch how Jesus responded?  He didn’t say, “There, there—everything will be just fine.”  He didn’t say, “Well, you’re certainly entitled to your feelings.”  He said, “Oh, how foolish you are!”  As so often happens when we translate the Bible into English, the Lord’s words have gotten softened a bit.  More literally, Jesus says, “You’re not thinking!  Oh, how mindless you are!”  Or, as one translator puts it, “You’re being just plain stupid!”  (I’m glad Fr. Stitt doesn’t correct me that way!)

Despite this very blunt start to the conversation, they keep talking with this Stranger.  And obviously they’re captivated by his interpretation of all that has taken place, because they invite him stay with them: “Join us for dinner—we’ll even pick up the tab!”  And it’s there at the table, as he takes, blesses, and breaks the bread, that their eyes are finally opened.  “We’ve seen this before, in the way Jesus constantly shared a table with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners.  We’ve seen this before in the way he fed 5,000 with just five loaves.  We saw this last Thursday night when, during the Passover supper, Jesus broke bread and said, ‘This is my Body.’  This is Jesus!  Which means, he’s alive!  So, the grave is empty, but not because his Body was stolen.  He was crucified, but it wasn’t the end.  He is risen on the third day, just as he said he would be!  Which means everything else he said must be true.  Which means he truly is the Son of God.  Which means the way of life he taught us wasn’t just another nice suggestion from a swell guy; it’s the very word of God, which demands my complete obedience.”  Their hearts on fire, their faith and hope restored, they immediately return to Jerusalem to share the Good News with others.

You see, the people of Jesus’ day were truth-seekers.  They were in search of answers to the heart’s deepest questions—ones we’re still asking 2,000 years later:  “What’s the purpose and meaning of life?  Where do we come from, and where are we going?  How do we make sense of it all?  Is there a right way we ought to live?”  The two travelers found the answer in Jesus and, recognizing the truth, they went from being truth-seekers to being truth-speakers.

We see this in St. Peter.  His sermon, which we hear in our First Reading, was one he gave on Pentecost—just 50 days later.  No longer locked up in hiding, he’s now speaking out before the crowds.  He repeats the story that turned around the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  It’s a message of great hope!  But did you notice what he says right in the middle of his message, as he speaks of Jesus’ crucifixion?  Taking a page from Jesus’ own playbook, he bluntly announces, “This man…you killed!”  True words—but such hard words to hear!

If we continue reading the next verses in the Acts of the Apostles, what do we find?  How did the crowd react?  Did they shout him down?  Did they pick up stones to hurl at him?  No.  Acts tells us they were cut to the heart and asked, “What are we to do?”  And Peter answered, “Repent and be baptized.”  And 3,000 of them were baptized that day (Acts 2:37-41).  3,000 truth-seekers become 3,000 truth-speakers!

In my years as a priest—especially in these last several months—there’s a trend I’ve started to notice, and it’s one that causes me great concern for our Church, for our country, for the whole human family.   I’m afraid that, these days, when people ask questions, they’re not actually looking for answers; they’re looking for affirmation.  What we want is somebody to tell us we’re right…even (especially!) when we’re wrong.  You see it the way we’re no longer governed by common sense and the common good, but by opinion polls.  I see it whenever I teach one of the Church’s harder truths—whether in a homily, or in the bulletin, or in responding to a particular question.  People don’t want to hear it! 

I’ve had four separate incidents like that just in this past week.  Someone asked me a question the other day, and I responded with the answer Jesus gives in the gospels.  I could tell from the look on her face that she wasn’t buying it, so I made it clear again that this wasn’t my own opinion, but the very word of the Lord.  To which she responded—at least with a smile on her face—“But that’s not the answer I was hoping for.”  There was another exchange where, after I’d affirmed some Church teaching, a parishioner wrote (I’m paraphrasing here), “I know what the Church teaches, and I even agree with what the Church teaches, but when you said it, it upset some people, and that upsets me.”

What’s a guy supposed to do?   I know what the temptations are.  One is simply not to say anything.  The other is to tell folks just what they want to hear.  But when we stop speaking the truth, before long we stop seeking the truth.  And then we’ve turned our backs to Jerusalem and are walking away from the Cross.

It’s good to ask ourselves: How do I take correction?  Am I more concerned with finding answers, or being affirmed?  When I find that a Church teaching is difficult, do I automatically assume that I'm right...and the Church isn't?  Am I willing to make changes when I see that I’m wrong?  Or do I expect the world, the Church—even God—to change to accommodate me?

I still hate it when Fr. Stitt is right…but I’m increasingly grateful when he corrects me.  And that’s the case because we’re good friends.  I know he only does it because he loves me.  He doesn’t want to see me get hurt.  How much more so is that the case with Jesus!  God did not come in human flesh to throw his authority around, to wag his divine finger in our faces.  He came out of love.  The way of life Jesus teaches—and I say “teaches” because he’s still teaching us through his Church—isn’t just one more opinion among so many others; nor is it meant as a way for an uncaring tyrant to keep us down with a long list of rules; it’s God himself saying, “You were made for so much more!  What I want for you is far better than this!  Let me lift you up—raise you with me, all the way to heaven!”  And to prove this love, he was willing to pay the highest price: not in sliver or gold, but with his own Most Precious Blood.

God has shown us the path to life: it is the way of truth, a road Jesus walks with us—he who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  As he opens the Scriptures and breaks the Bread for us in this Eucharist, may we be renewed and strengthened to always honestly seek the truth, and be given the courage to always speak it.

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


   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 

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!