Sunday, August 26, 2012

Even Through Storms, There Is Faith

Despite the threat of a tropical storm, we planned on celebrating every single one of our eight scheduled Masses this weekend.  We had no idea how bad the storm would be, but if someone showed up to pray, Mass would be celebrated.  Every Mass was indeed celebrated.  They were simple and brief yet solemn.  There was no music yet the sounds of nature outside the church provided a moving soundtrack.  More importantly, every Mass was celebrated with great faith by the people who came, which is what today’s readings, were all about:

“We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”  (John 6:69)

You have no idea how moving it is for me as a priest to see all of you at Mass today.  Last night when I went to bed, I thought I would be celebrating Mass for the statues because I really had no idea how bad the storm was going to be.  Your very presence here despite the wind and the rain is a great act of faith.  You made a decision this morning that in spite of whatever obstacles nature threw your way, you were determined to come to Mass to thank the Lord for his goodness.  He has spared us from this storm and we gather to give thanks.  Besides, as St. Peter says at the end of today’s gospel, “To Whom shall we go?”  It is awesome to see nature on display particularly during a storm, but it is only here that we hear the words of eternal life and consume the bread of eternal life.

Yes, today you made a decision of faith just like Peter did in the gospel and Joshua made in the first reading.  Joshua gathered the people of Israel whom he now lead after Moses had died and basically told them that it was time for them to decide if they truly wanted to serve the Lord or not.  Many of the Israelites, despite having seen God’s power first hand after being freed from Egypt, were still opting for false gods which caused Joshua to draw a line in the sand and basically tell them “who are you going to follow?”  This prompts Joshua to utter one of my mother’s favorite bible quotes: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord (Joshua 24:15).”  My mother had this verse on a magnet on our fridge when I was a kid.  The people of Israel had reached a crossroads in their faith journey just as the disciple did at the end of today’s gospel.  Jesus sees many of his followers leave because they found his teachings too harsh, so the Lord turns to the twelve and asks them if they were also going to leave.  Peter speaks for all of them when he basically surrenders to Jesus and says “To Whom shall we go?”  But he takes it a step further when he says, “We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”  That word “convinced” is what really floors me.  The twelve see no other path in their lives but a path with the Lord.  Their conviction is what is exemplary.  It is the same conviction that each of you demonstrated by braving the elements and making your way to Mass this day.  May we always have the conviction of Joshua and Peter to always opt for the Lord for only He has the words of eternal life.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Prayer to Avert Storms and Hurricanes

All the elements of nature obey Your command. 
Calm the storms and hurricanes that threaten us,
and turn our fear of Your power into praise of Your goodness.
Grant this through our Lord, Jesus Christ, Your Son,
who lives and reigns with You
and the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Do You Understand the Mass?

"I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” (John 6:51)
About a year ago, I took Father Eliseus to a professional football game.  Now since Father Eliseus is from Nigeria where football is actually soccer, he did not know a single thing about our version of football.  During the game I kept explaining what was going on.  I explained to him that the team with the ball had four chances or "downs" to get ten yards in order to get another four chances to continue to advance the ball down the field.  We take these rules and the details of the game for granted until we have to explain them to someone who has no idea what is taking place in front of them.  I would imagine that the same thing would happen to me if I ever attended a Cricket match.  Slowly but surely, Father began to pick up the nuances of the game both on offense and defense.  He would start to react wildly with the rest of us whenever our team did something positive (yes, we were watching the Miami Dolphins) and shake his head with me when the team did something negative (we were playing Tom Brady and the Patriots on Monday Night Football so there was a lot of head shaking).  Father Eliseus came to enjoy the game more and more as he started to grasp the details and intricacies of it.  It became something exciting for him as he learned more and more.  We can apply the same logic to our understanding of the Mass.  We cannot enjoy and cherish what we do not understand.  So many people complain that Mass is boring or that they "get nothing out of it," but I guarantee you that if you understood the details of the Mass and why we do the things we do up here on the altar and frame them within a historical perspective and within God's plan of salvation then you will begin to enjoy and cherish this blessed event even more.
Every single gesture and prayer that is done up here has a meaning and a story.  Every week we encounter the Lord in a new way through the different Scripture readings that we hear.  Every week we get to partake in this heavenly bread that in today's gospel Jesus calls his "flesh for the life of the world."  Stop and think about the magnitude of Jesus' words today:  "whoever eats this bread will live forever."  He gives us life through this Eucharist.  He remains in us and we remain in him.  If we truly understood these words, if we truly understood the Mass, we would be hungering for this divine food every single day.  What is going up here is a divine exchange between God and his people.  Jesus gives us his very flesh to eat so that we may be glorified and become like him!  Notice that I used the word "flesh" instead of "body."  St. John does the same thing in today's gospel.  Instead of using the Greek word "soma" which means "body," which St. Paul used to refer to the Eucharist, John uses the Greek word "sarx" which mean "flesh" which has a negative connotation in the Greek as it does in the English language.  When we think of "the flesh," we normally think of sins against the 6th commandment.  But St. John uses this word in order to dispel any notions that were prevailing at the time that the flesh was weak.  His uses the word "sarx" in the first chapter when he writes that the Word became flesh to dwell among us.  Now he uses it again to describe the Eucharist and the bread that we eat to emphasize that if we eat of this flesh we will live forever.  The flesh is no longer considered something negative or sinful, but now the flesh has been glorified by Jesus himself.  It's little things like this that help us understand the Mass better and allow us to enter more fully into the divine mysteries that we celebrate here every Sunday because it is at this altar that we encounter and touch God himself by receiving the Eucharist.  If we truly grasped this reality along with everything else that transpires during this divine exchange, then our experience of the Mass will never be the same.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Bread of Angels

Blessed the [one] who takes refuge in [the Lord]." (Psalm 34:9)

She is around my mother’s age.  She had just been brought to a rehab center and she wanted to see a priest and receive communion on Sunday, the Lord’s Day.  I walked into her room and found her confined to a wheelchair carefully making rosaries.  The tray above her chair had rosary beads, string, and two prayer books.  I sat down at the edge of the bed next to her chair and gave her the sacraments.  While I was doing this, she informed me that she had bone cancer and there was really not much more the doctors could do.  She could go no further.  Immediately I thought of today’s first reading.  I read it to her and explained to her how Elijah felt in the wilderness when he thought he could not go no further and how angels brought him food to strengthen him on his journey.  I told her that the same thing had happened today because she received something much greater than the bread Elijah received.  She received what Saint Ignatius of Antioch called “the bread of angels, bread from heaven, medicine of immortality.”  She smiled and told me that all she wanted was a happy death.  She had accepted her reality.  In our time together, she told me of her worries for priests, for the souls of purgatory, for the souls of dearly departed priest.  She told me to tell people to pray for these things (done), but of all her worries, she was not worried about death.  I told her not to fear death because she had received this heavenly bread which if we listen to Jesus in today’s gospel, guarantees us eternal life.  Like Elijah, she had now been fed bread of angels and was on her way not to Mount Horeb but to Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. It’s amazing how much peace can emanate from someone who is dying.  When you’re at peace with the Lord, what is there to fear?

When we think we can’t go any further, God somehow pushes us across the finish line.  Elijah was fleeing for his life because he had defeated and killed false prophets which angered his enemies.  He stood up for God and now his life was in danger.  Now as he journeys through the wilderness he asks for death because he cannot go any further.  Angels comes to minister to him and bring him bread to nourish him.  This bread of angels will be given again by Christ for he is the bread of life come down from heaven.  This bread will strengthen us as it did Elijah who finished his journey to Mount Horeb which is also known as Mount Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic covenant was formed.  The Eucharist is the sign of the new covenant that is ratified by the blood of Jesus.  He promises to feed us on our journey home towards the Father.  This food helps makes us imitators of God as the second reading implores us to be.  But more importantly it brings us the peace that this woman felt in that rehab center this afternoon.  Her Lord and Savior had come to be one with her as I brought her the bread of angels that we will receive later at this Mass.  Now, I’m no angel, nor do I aspire to be.  What I aspire to be is what this woman told me as I took my leave of her.  I kissed her on the forehead, and she said, “Thank you, Father.  You will be in my prayers so that you can be always be a holy priest.” 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Looking For Jesus

“…[they] came to Capernaum looking for Jesus.”  (John 6:24)

Over the last week, many of us have been awed by the athletic achievements we have seen at the Olympics.  As a country we have fallen in love with Gabby Douglas’ smile, Missy Franklin’s exuberance, and Katie Ledecky’s youth.  All three of these teenagers have witnessed to the presence of God in some way after winning their gold medals.  Gabby told the sideline reporter on national television minutes after winning gold: “I give all the glory to God…the glory goes up to him and his blessings fall down on me.”  Katie Ledecky is the youngest member of the entire U.S. Olympic team since she just turned 15 in March.  She is a student at Stone Ridge High School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Maryland.  Her godfather is a Jesuit priest, and she says that she prays a Hail Mary before every race.  Missy Franklin also attends a Catholic high school though she is not Catholic, yet.  Missy lives in Aurora, Colorado and dedicated these games to the victims of the tragic shooting.  I say she is not Catholic yet because although her family is Protestant, Missy has been quoted as saying she is thinking about becoming a Catholic because of the incredible spiritual experience of going to Catholic high school retreats and going to Mass.  She is looking for the same thing that the people in today’s gospel are looking for.  Something we can only find here on the altar.  Yesterday, a parishioner sent me an article that said that Olympic athletes were flocking to daily Mass.  Of all the religious services taking place in the athlete’s village, Mass is the most attended particularly since they are celebrating the Eucharist three times a day.  Even in competition, these athletes, like the crowds, like us on this Sunday, are looking for Jesus.

But the crowds come looking for a sign from Jesus.  They aren’t aware yet that what Jesus has to offer is life-giving bread.  They come hungering for the physical and perishable not the spiritual.  At times we are very much like the crowds in today’s gospel.  We look for signs from above and fail to recognize the real presence of Christ in our midst.  Jesus gives himself totally to us in the Eucharist.  He prepares for us this heavenly meal that causes the crowd to tell him “give us this bread always!”  Unfortunately many of us take this meal in bits and pieces.  Imagine a buffet spread before you and you pick at all the food but don’t sit down to savor what you are eating, to digest, and to enjoy.  We cannot take Jesus in bits and pieces.  We have to take him all!  That is what communion is all about.  A part time spiritual life, like the manna in the desert, will perish.  The Eucharist creates a permanent bond that calls us to a deeper relationship with our Lord that does not perish.  And how do we strengthen this relationship with Christ?  On our knees before the Blessed Sacrament!  It is only there face to face with our Lord and God that we get to know the Master and that we hunger for him even more.  He is there every day in the tabernacle waiting for you, longing for you, and yes, hungering for you.  Our young Olympians are seeking out Christ every day before they compete and proclaiming his glory to the entire word.  How much more do we need our Lord to be able to take his presence and proclaim his glory to a world hungering for the divine?