Saturday, March 28, 2015

Homily for Palm Sunday (Year B)

In the 20th century the story of Holy Week was turned into a play—perhaps you've seen “Jesus Christ Superstar.” But the idea to make the story of Christ's Passion into a musical predates Andrew Lloyd Weber by many centuries:

♬ Ho-san-na to the son of David....
From the Entrance into to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, to the haunting events of Good Friday:
♬ Crucify him, Crucify him!
To the glories of Easter that we celebrate at the Vigil:
♬ A...
… well, I don't want to sing the “A”-word during Lent, but you know I mean.

This week we have a chance to watch this drama unfold before our very eyes (and ears). On Holy Thursday Christ will institute the Priesthood and the Eucharist at the Mass of the Lord's Supper, at 7:00pm. On Good Friday, Christ will die for our salvation, here at 2pm and at St. Bridget's Church, with chanted Passion, at 7pm. And at the glorious Easter Vigil, beginning at 8pm at the end of Holy Saturday, Christ will rise again from the dead.

We will all participate in the sacred drama. Whether you choose to come to these beautiful Holy Week liturgies or not, we will all play a role in this sacred drama, because it is the drama of our lives and of our eternity. And thankfully, it's still early enough to try out for a good part in the play. There are several different parts to choose from.

You could sign up to be a member of the fickle crowd. These are the extras who hold up their palm branches when Jesus comes into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, but who turn away when following Him becomes inconvenient. This role requires very little commitment, and most people who play these parts do not even bother to show up for the weekly rehearsal. Unfortunately, they usually do not get invited to the cast party afterwards, and their children rarely take an interest in theater.

But there are also some speaking parts, which require a lot of hard work. For example, in the script we just read we heard Christ say to the disciples, “Your faith will be shaken.” To really be able to “get into character” you may have to submit to some very unpleasant experiences.

Or you could play the part of one of the faithful women. They don't get top billing, but they do get to share the stage with Jesus in the most memorable scene.

If you're anxious about your role in the play, don't worry: although our Director has very high standards, He's also very forgiving.

So think about which part you'd like to play this year—and beg God to help you remember your lines.

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year B)

This is a rough version of the text of my homily of 3/22/15.  In main it is a summary of an article in the October 2014 issue of the Communion & Liberation magazine Traces entitled "I am Nothing when You are not Present.  The text lacks citations but most of the quotations are drawn from this article.

“The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel. […] I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts […]. No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives how to know the Lord. All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the Lord.”

What a great promise, that we will not need anyone to teach us how to know the Lord, because we will encounter Him in an unmediated way when He writes on our heart.

Some Greeks […] came to Philip […] and asked him, 'Sir, we would like to see Jesus.'” These Greeks may not have gotten an up-close-and-personal one-on-one with Jesus, but there He was, standing there for all to see! “No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives how to know the Lord”—He's right there! And they got to hear a voice from Heaven, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again.”

Perhaps we come to Mass today with that same desire, “We would like to see Jesus!” And He's even closer to us than He was to them—because although physically He is now in Heaven seated at the right hand of the Father, He is really present in the Blessed Sacrament and each of can know Him directly, not having to settle for merely learning about Him from our friends and relatives. All can know Him! To know God! To be in a loving relationship with the creator of the universe, “Who would not desire this every morning, in every moment of life?

And yet somehow it doesn't seem that simple. Yes, He is present in the Blessed Sacrament, and yet perhaps we would prefer a voice to come from heaven, like the one that some in the crowd around Jesus mistook for thunder.

Now, “In certain exceptional moments, we have all had an experience of that kind,” and experience whereby we know with certainty that God is present. Or at least, I hope each of you has had that experience at some time. If not, my heart breaks for you. If you have never had a deep and meaningful encounter with God, then beg Him to reveal Himself to you today in the mostly Holy Sacrifice of the Eucharist, following the example of Christ as St. Paul portrays Him to us in the Letter to the Hebrews: 'offering prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who is able to save you from death, and you will be heard because of your reverence.'

I think asking for this experience is important because 'Only a faith arising from life experience and confirmed by it … is strong enough to survive in a world where everything, everything seems to point in the opposite direction.'

For most of us, though, I imagine that 'in some exceptional moments, we have had an experience of that kind: but we wonder how it can become stable.'

At first, our relationship with God can be dramatic: “When the love of our life enters into your existence, you are ready to give your life for it.” And yet our relationship with God, like any relationship, has its ups and downs, highs and lows. Not because God ever abandons us, but because something changes within ourselves. Our relationship begins by asking, with the flame of desire burning in our hearts, (excitedly) What next!? What do You have in store for me today!? “Then, over time, after years of belonging, the dramatic question becomes, (dejectedly) '[Now what]?'” Now what?

It's not that I necessarily doubt my previous experience of God or reject my faith in any way. I acknowledge that, in some general or theoretical way, God is 'calling' me, that I am in a relationship with God, but I don't really know what that means so I end up just going through the motions, week after week. I show up to Mass every week and I do the Catholic things and I say the Catholic words but “Mere words […] do not help us get by.”

If we're stuck in a rut, spiritually, we have a problem, and we need help. But “Rather than seeking […] help […] we limit ourselves to comments, often of an intellectual nature.

So, what's wrong with my relationship with God? Why is my prayer so ineffective? “It's the way the liturgy is done; it's the way this person near me is praying so very annoyingly; it's the way this child of mine has recently acted towards me; it's the economic difficulties that fill my life with worry.”

But at the end of this list of complaints “our dissatisfaction remains, and we ask ourselves what should be done, as if the solution were outside ourselves.”

The English author G. K. Chesterton was once asked to write an essay with the title, “What's Wrong with the World?” His response was just two words long. “What's wrong with the world?” He wrote simply, “I am.”

For some reason, we think that the problem with our relationship with God is someone else's fault, something we can't control. But that is not true. “The question is not banal: are we still seeking [God], or have we stopped?” If we have stopped, if we've given up our quest for a deeper relationship with God and have grown content with merely going through the motions, then let us offer prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save us from death, Who is able to save us from our nothingness, able to give us meaning and purpose!

The crucial question is to understand how God calls us, because otherwise we talk about God in the abstract.”

Let us return again to that first encounter, “When the love of our life enters into your existence, you are ready to give your life for it.”
Why does God let this experience fade? Why doesn't God allow us to feel that surge of religious emotion intensely and continuously?
God wishes to teach us that “Life can be even more profound than this”
We are ready to give our life … but there is an even greater sacrifice [than this heroic/romantic impulse. There is an even greater sacrifice than this], which is giving your life according to the how and the when that He decides.”

Our first activity [in hearing God's call] is passivity, [even the words we use imply this—God calls, so I listen! Passivity,] accepting, receiving, acknowledging that everything is given” to us by God.

Everything is given to us. God gives us all our circumstances. These “Circumstances are the [way in] which [God] calls us.” He has chosen to insert us into the universe at this moment, in this place. And the Lord, the One Who at this very moment is creating the reality in which we live, tells us, 'Look, these circumstances that you do not understand, that seem so dark to you, this is way in which I who make all things have chosen to build your life, to help you to mature, to make you yourself, to rekindle your desire, and to make you present to the present.'

God wants to make us present to the present. If we only appreciated the great gift of our present circumstances, circumstances over which we have no control whatsoever, we would flourish.

Last week I had the opportunity to visit some of my favorite parishioners. I don't mean to insult anyone by the comparison, but last week I was blessed to visit the Ontario County Jail. I have never left the jail without being inspired by the people I meet, and a little ashamed of the way I live my own life of prayer. People I meet in the jail are always telling me about how they've deepened in their relationship with God, and not because of some great experience of conversion after whatever sin or crime landed them in a correctional facility, but because they've established a routine: “I get up at the same every morning and say these prayers...”. Here are people whose circumstances, objectively speaking, seem pretty horrible. They have very little say over what they do or when they do it. Yet they have accepted those restraints, embraced those circumstances, and so have found a way to grow closer to God in their situation.

Similarly, I recently read the story of a woman whose life was turned upside-down when she had a daughter with Down Syndrome. Now this was a very Catholic woman who never in a million years would have considered having an abortion (as so many do when they discover their family life will not turn out the way they imagine), but “all […] my good Catholic openness to life,” she writes, “is not enough”. “I need a reason for living what exists,” a reason for living day-by-day the difficulties her daughter's condition requires of her. “It's not that I need someone to tell me that my daughter is of infinite value” (I know that when I look into her eyes. Rather, I need Jesus.) Acknowledging that God has given us our circumstances makes all the difference, and not just intellectually: “the difference is in the gusto that comes from the consciousness that the Lord is calling me here, and not where I thought I would be.

This is how God calls us. Maybe we don't understand why, but this is how God calls us. It's not without reason that at every Mass we refer to Christ's presence among us as the Mystery of Faith!

But at times we don't want this method: […] In the face of the challenges of the current circumstances, which often shock us, [Our temptation] is to give into fear, thinking we can reach unity [with God] […] 'exonerated from risks.' We do not believe the circumstances were given to us by the Mystery, by the Lord of time and history, so we could re-acquire the truth.”

But this is how God calls us.
The only condition for being truly and faithfully religious […] is always to live reality intensely”.

In the presence of a […] culture which gives top priority to appearances, to all that is superficial and temporary, the challenge is to choose [to] love reality.”

Either we understand this, or all the […] challenges we have to face have nothing to do with our journey, and even become an obstacle.”

For the Christian, “Nothing [in life] is to be […] censured, forgotten, or rejected,” because these circumstances are the means by which God has chosen to call us.

Our relationship with God cannot stay at the level of the dramatic emotion where it may have been after our first encounter with Him. “Unless that initial ring of truth ripens into maturity, we can no longer bear, as Christians, the enormous mountain of work, responsibility, and toil to which we are called.”

But if we accept that our circumstances are the way in which God calls us, if we live with gusto every moment of every day because we expect to find God's presence there, then “You [become] more and more fascinated, [and] you become more and more yourself.”

Jesus says in the Gospel that “Whoever loves his life loses it,” because if we imagine that we can only be happy with our life just as it is, or just as we wish it would be, invariably we will be disappointed. But He also says that “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” (Mt 10:39) because if we are willing to give up our preconceived notions of what's best for us God will show us why his path for us is greater than the one we would have plotted for ourselves, difficult as his way may seem.

As we prepare next week to celebrate Holy Week, when Christ himself was betrayed and crucified, are you willing to lose your life for his sake?

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