Sunday, March 30, 2008

Resurrection Thomas

Homily for the Second Sunday of Easter, Year A
Have you ever wondered what Thomas was doing when the other ten disciples were visited by Jesus? When all the other disciples are together, where is Thomas? It is only hours after their leader’s cruel death – his friends and followers are still trying to make sense of it all. Earlier in the day, they heard from Mary Magdalene that he is alive. And now, they’re all together wondering what on earth is going on. But where is Thomas? The gospel doesn’t tell us – it leaves us wondering. Maybe he’s off by himself, still crying, tormented by what has happened to Jesus, ashamed that he ran away when the teacher needed him most. Or maybe he’s heard the report from Mary Magdalene and is roaming the streets, looking for Jesus – trying to find the one who has come back to life, with no success. Can you see him, running through the streets of Jerusalem, not knowing whether to be in anguish or in joy? We don’t know for sure what Thomas was doing when he wasn’t with the other disciples, but one thing is clear – Thomas won’t believe that Jesus is alive until he sees for himself. For Thomas, seeing is believing.

Shortly before he died of cancer, a prominent Christian historian, Jaroslav Pelikan, summed up the place of Christianity in our world in two sentences. He said: “If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen – nothing else matters.” (Quoted in the article by Ron Sider, “If Christ is Risen …” in Prism 2008) Think about that. If death really is the end of human existence – if there is no resurrection – then nothing else matters. No fame or wealth, no amount of joy or success, or even sorrow will have made any difference. If death is the end, then “we disappear into nothingness” (Sider). But if Christ is risen – and, because of his resurrection, we can all be raised to the glory of eternal life – if Christ is indeed risen, then nothing else matters, because nothing in this life can even begin to compare with the joy of eternal life with our God. “If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen – nothing else matters.”

And that brings us back to Thomas. It’s unfortunate that Thomas is remembered most often because of this doubting. Because, really, Thomas had more faith in the resurrection than just about anyone else. For Thomas knew very well that if Christ were indeed risen from the dead, then human history would be changed, and there is nothing in this life that would be more significant than what the resurrection would bring. Thomas needed proof, not just because he doubted, but because he knew how unimaginably important it was that the rumors and the stories from Mary Magdalene be true – he was so convinced that the resurrection was important that it’s easy to imagine that he couldn’t sit around in a room and wait. Running through the streets, searching for Jesus, Thomas knew how important it was to know that Christ had been raised. “If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen – nothing else matters.” Because if we truly believe what Christianity claims – the very thing we celebrate at Easter – if we truly believe that Christ is risen from the dead, then nothing else matters.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Hope for Survival

Homily for Easter Sunday, Year A
There is a billboard on a major highway not too far from here that proclaims, in bold letters: “Earth’s last greatest hope for survival.” And next to this proclamation is a picture of a large milkshake. Imagine that – according to this billboard, our greatest hope for survival is a milkshake. I don’t know whether we’re supposed to laugh or cry.

On the one hand, this billboard makes a good point – our world does seem to be in shambles. Whether you look at the economy, or the threat of terrorism; the loss of family-centered values or any of a myriad of personal vices, its clear that the world is not as it should be. Something’s not right. You might even say that we need someone or something to save us from the downward spiral, to liberate us from the decaying world that we live in. In that sense, the billboard is right – we do need to look for some glimmer of hope for survival. And I hope we can find something better than a milkshake.

But here, on this bright spring morning, we can find just the hope we are longing for. Because today, we celebrate the ultimate reversal of fortunes. Today, we celebrate suffering and death being transformed into new life. Today we celebrate a tomb that is empty, a savior who has returned to life, and a promise that we can do the same through the saving waters of baptism. Today we celebrate the resurrection – the turning point in all of human history. From that first Easter Sunday, nothing has been the same. From that first Easter Sunday, the light of Christ’s resurrection has been the only hope that we need to tell us that, yes, we will survive – we will live – because God is in charge, and not even death can hold him back.

Any suffering that we come across in this Good Friday World can be transformed – if only we will let the risen Christ take hold of us and lift us up. Any despair or anxiety or fea that we live with can indeed be conquered. As the great Easter hymn, the Exultet, sings: “the power of this holy night dispels all evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy; it casts out hatred, brings us peace and humbles earthly pride.” The power of Easter is right here – we are desperately in need of help, and Christ rising from the dead is truly our only hope for survival – and it is all the hope we need. For today and all days: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

He rose from the table ...

Homily for Holy Thursday, Mass of the Lord's Supper, Year A
Imagine for a moment what the Last Supper might have looked like – picture it in your mind, if you can, with Jesus, and the disciples, gathered around a table; with the bread and the wine and all that made that first Eucharist holy and special. Hold that image in your mind on this night when we remember that final meal that Jesus ate with his chosen twelve. I would guess that many of us picture something not unlike Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper when we think of this night – a scene with Jesus seated in the middle of a table, surrounded on each side by his disciples, with the bread and the wine nearby. It’s a beautiful picture, one of the most familiar of all Christian images. But it’s static – framed, set up, posed. And that is far from what this evening’s mass commemorates.

Tonight is about action, not a posed picture. Tonight is about movement, service, giving and receiving. For, on this night, Jesus rose from the table. The Son of God, the one who “wraps the heavens in clouds, wrapped round himself a towel; he who pours the water into the rivers and pools tipped some water into a basin. And he before whom every knee bends in heaven and on earth and under the earth, knelt to wash the feet of his disciples” (Severian of Gabala, Homily on the Washing of the Feet, in A. Wenger, Revue des Etudes Byzantines, 227-229). Jesus, the Son of God, the one who was about to willingly accept death, only to come forth from the tomb, Jesus rose from the table to wash his disciples feet. But that’s not all.

When he had sat back down, the Lord of all, the foot-washer, gave his disciples a command: go and do likewise. Go forth, nourished by the Body and Blood broken and poured out for you, go forth and serve one another. Because this man you have been following, this teacher and miracle worker, this God-made-flesh is calling you to follow in his footsteps of humility and service. We can’t do this on our own – we need the strength of the Eucharist to feed us and fill us with Christ himself. But we must do it – we cannot let our faith become static, a posed picture where we sit around a table and never move. The faith we are called to live this night, and all our lives, is one that must follow Christ’s example – to rise from the table, refreshed and renewed, and to serve one another. For the one we worship is a risen savior, a living savior, whose love for us compelled him to live among us in all the glory and the squalor of human existence. Tonight, Christ tells us clearly: Rise up, you children of God, to “give heart and soul and mind and strength to serve the king of kings!” (“Rise up, ye saints of God,” William Pierson Merrill). Rise up from the table where you are nourished, and serve one another.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Palm Sunday, 2008

"The crowds preceding him and those following kept crying out and saying: 'Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is the he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest.' And when he entered Jerusalem the whole city was shaken and asked, 'Who is this?' And the crowds replied, 'This is Jesus the prophet, from Nazareth in Galilee.'"
- Matthew 21.9-11

Who is this man, this Jesus of Nazareth? Who is he for you?

Is he the great teacher, the master preacher, who taught us how to love one another? Or is he the perfect model of faith and prayer, who showed us how to trust in God even in the midst of suffering and feelings of abandonment? Or is he the king, the ruler not just of one peoples, but of the whole world?

Who is this man, this Jesus of Nazareth? Who is he for you?

For us who bear his name, and who now enter this Holy Week, he is all these things, but much more: for he is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God whose death destroyed our death and whose rising opens for us the gates of heaven.

Who is this man, this Jesus of Nazareth? Who is he for you?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Spring Cleaning

Our parish office staff spent today doing a very Lenten thing - cleaning. The office was closed today so that we could concentrate on a yearly massive clean up of our office space, especially our storage rooms and common areas. Every place inhabited regularly by human beings needs a regular cleaning and sprucing up, and for the good of all it is a great benefit to occasionally go through our things and get rid of anything we no longer need or no longer use. A lot was organized in the parish office today - from our copy paper to our marriage and funeral preparation materials, from our meeting rooms to our kitchen cabinets. And I'm sure there will be plenty to keep us busy during next year's Lenten Cleaning Day as well.

Spring cleaning is a Lenten activity because the season of Lent is all about a cleansing and preparation to receive the new life of Easter. Most often, we concentrate on cleansing our souls and cleaning up our spiritual lives through the practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; but this is also a great time of year to do a physical cleaning of the spaces we live and work in. Simplicity, orderliness, and cleanliness are certainly virtues, and we can spend these Lenten days using these virtues to guide our daily actions. Even at its root, Lent is connected to Spring -the word "Lent" comes from the same root as the word "lengthen" - this is the time when the days get longer and the light gets brighter, both the light of the sun and the light of the Son of God, whose resurrection will shine brightly and show us the way to salvation.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Social Sin - It's Nothing New

The headlines coming out of the Vatican by secular news agencies over the last day quickly grabbed my attention, as good headlines do; but they were far from accurate. The first one I heaerd, on the radio Monday morning, proclaimed: "Vatican declares seven new Deadly Sins." The story reported that the Pope has created a new set of seven contemporary Deadly Sins to go with the traditional ones of sloth, anger, lust, gluttony, pride, envy, and greed. As the day went on, news agencies throughout the world caught on to this supposedly hot news story - because you'd think it would be top news if, as one report said, the Vatican were changing the list of mortal sins for the first time in 1500 years. Other news headlines: "Vatican lists new sins," or "Seven more sins, thanks to Vatican" or "Recycle or Go to Hell, warns Vatican" (this article begins: "Failing to recycle plastic bags could find you spending eternity in Hell.")

But here's the real story, as best I can surmise: a Vatican official, the head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, responded to an interview question from L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, which asked if sin in today's world is any different from sins in ages past. He responded that his opinion is that sin today takes a more social dimension than past ages, when sin was often more individualistic. He pointed to such social sins as genetic manipulation, economic injustice, and harming the environment. That's it - end of story. There is not a new list of Seven Deadly Sins - although it is quite entertaining to hear news reports come up with such a list from the actual interview. The Church has not redefined what a mortal sin is - as a matter of fact, the Church does not have an actual list of mortal sins, since three conditions must be met for such a sin (serious matter, knowledge of its sinfulness, and freedom). The Seven Deadly Sins are seen as the root of all sin - not a list of what could be a mortal sin. And, last but not least, the Pope or the Vatican have said nothing - in the realm of Church teachings, the opinion of a Vatican official expressed in a newpaper interview is pretty low on the list.

Social Sin is not a new concept. Especially over the past century, there has been more and more of a realization that sin effects not just us, but all the people around us, and there are certain types of sin that can effect an entire society or even the whole human race. And to say that becoming excessively wealthy is a new sin (as reported by some media) is to completely ignore what Jesus himself said, in more than one place in the gospels, about accumulating wealth. Yesterday must have either been a really slow news day, or the media are completely clueless when it comes to religion reporting - or both.

Sunday, March 9, 2008


Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A
There is a small, two-letter word in today’s gospel that has probably caused more spiritual problems and anxiety than just about other word in our vocabulary. It’s so small, that you would think it should be insignificant. Even in the original Greek of the gospel, this word has only two letters, just about as small as a word can be. The word I am talking about is “if.”

Unfortunately, we are all-too-familiar with that word of doubt, or questioning, or wonder. Now, it’s true that we can dream with the word if, but too often we use this word to doubt or question. What if my grades are good enough to get into the college I want to go to? Or, if only we had left home on time, we would have avoided all this rush-hour traffic. Or, what will happen if we get a foot of snow right before Sunday masses? Or, if you had listened to my advice, we wouldn’t be in all this financial trouble. If, if, if …it’s enough to drive us crazy thinking through what could have happened if things had been different.

Even the disciples and friends of Jesus are plagued by the if-syndrome. That small word appears no less than nine times in the gospel we just heard, sometimes on the lips of Jesus, sometimes from his disciples, but probably most telling in the words of the two sisters, Mary and Martha. Each of these sisters tells Jesus separately, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” In other words, if you had done what you are supposed to do – be the miracle-working Messiah – Lazarus would still be alive.

It’s so easy for us to get caught up in the if-syndrome, to think about how things could have been different with just a few changes in the circumstances. But whenever we do this, we are living in a fantasy world – the world of what could have been, but will never be. To live in a world of if’s is to discount everything that is happening now. Look at what Jesus said about himself: he said, “I am the resurrection and the life,” not “if I die and rise, then I will be the resurrection.” No – Jesus is life now, not just in some future what-if scenario. But also remember what happened when Jesus came to the tomb of Lazarus. Even though he knew that Lazarus was going to come back to life, Jesus wept – the grief of the present moment was just as real as the joy that was to come.

To live consumed by the if-syndrome is to live in a world that does not exist, except in our own minds. The world of if’s is a world of darkness, a world of despair, a world of temptation. The world we live in is a world of the present, a world of the right-now, a world of new life. And in this world, the only valuable what-if is the one of hope for the future, the one Jesus tells Mary and Martha: “If you believe, you will see the glory of God.”

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Merton on Salvation

Last week, I spent my annual retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. I thought that would be a good opportunity to read one of the greatest Christian spiritual classics, Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain, since Merton was a Trappist monk of Gethsemani. His spiritual autobiography details his conversion to Christianity through the 1920s and 1930s as well as what led him to join the monastery, which he did in 1941. It was a great read - truly living up in my mind to its designation as a classic.

One line in particular jumped out at me and seems to be characteristically Merton and thoroughly Christian. Toward the end of the book, as he is joining the monastery, he says: "No man goes to heaven all by himself, alone." This great line sums up much of what it means to be a Christian, for we cannot be a Christian in isolation. Even God Himself is not a one, but a three-in-one, a community of persons. So too, we cannot expect to attain salvation on our own - we need the support of other people (the Church), the guidance of Scripture and the holy men and women of our past (the saints) and the challenge of those around us today (our family, friends, and even strangers and enemies). And when we think of heaven, we can't think that it is a place where we will be sitting by ourselves with God - heaven, like earth, is a community of people, caught up in the presence of God as a communion of saints.

In these days of Lenten journey, this is also a good reminder that we do not walk the path of Lent - the prayer, fasting, and almsgiving of reflection and renewal - by ourselves. Many others are walking with us, and we pray that our individual and communal preparations for Easter may bear fruit as a people - the People of God.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Me vs. The World

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year A
Do you ever feel like the world is conspiring against you? That just when you get through one struggle, something else just as difficult and taxing rears its head? Or that things seem to keep going wrong? Say you go to the grocery store, get a cart-full of food, only to find out at the cash register that you left all your money and credit cards at home; you pull out your cell phone to call someone at home to bring the money, and the battery is dead; and when you go out to your car to drive home, with the groceries waiting in the cart back at the check-out lane, the car doesn’t start. The world is obviously conspiring against your getting those groceries. Or perhaps it is more serious: Like a family that suffers through a diagnosis with cancer and the chemotherapy that comes with it, only to then to have another family member who loses his job, and then a car accident that leaves a child paralyzed. The stresses and adversity and challenges of everyday life are sometimes enough to make us wonder: why me? What did I ever do to deserve any of the hardships of my life?

I imagine the man born blind could have been thinking much the same thing. First, he has had to deal with the fact of his blindness – but, like most people who are blind, he had probably learned to adjust, to heighten his other senses. And all of a sudden, when this stranger puts clay on his eyes and tells him to wash in the Pool of Siloam, and suddenly he can see for the first time in his life – you’d think that things would start getting better. But they don’t. First, his friends and neighbors don’t even recognize him. Then, the authorities start to challenge him, his parents don’t even support him, and he is expelled from the synagogue. Could life get any worse for this man who had been born blind?

But with each passing obstacle, something else changes. The farther this man is pushed away from friends, from family, even from his place of worship, the more insight he gains about the stranger who had put clay on his eyes, the miracle-worker, the prophet, the Son of Man. We’re all like the man born blind. In a world that seems to be conspiring against us, we search for faith in the midst of our adversities, we long to find meaning even when things don’t go our way. And while we are looking for meaning, Jesus is looking for us, seeking us out, to heal our blindness and show us the way to his light. That’s the lesson of Lent – it’s about a new perspective: rather than looking for meaning when all we can see is tragedy, Lent reminds us that Christ is always looking for us, ready to hold us and heal us bring us to his light. Rather than look for answers or for meaning, Lent challenges us to look instead for Christ, who is already looking for us.