Sunday, February 23, 2014

Love Your Enemies

But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you  (Matthew 5:44)

This is such a difficult gospel.  As Christians, we understand that we are called to love our neighbor, but love our enemies?  That is a tough commandment to follow at times, but let me offer you some hope from some friends to the south who are living out today’s gospel.  Last Thursday night, our church was overflowing with people who came to pray for peace in Venezuela which has been dealing with unsettling violence over the last few weeks.  The Mass was celebrated by one of my Venezuelan brother priests, and he did a beautiful job of directing the people’s attention towards the gospel and maintained a beautiful atmosphere of peace throughout the two hours that we spent in prayer.  Yes, most if not all of those present have no love lost for the government of their homeland who is suppressing freedoms, but you could not feel any hatred during that Mass, only love for God and their homeland.  In regards to today’s gospel, the morning of the Mass I was speaking to a Venezuelan friend who was telling me that we must pray for those who were persecuting them and oppressing them.  I was not celebrating the Mass, but prayers were offered for those in power so that they might always seek justice and the common good.  The petition of my friend and the prayers offered at Mass were in harmony with the message of Jesus in today’s gospel: “pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44).” 

As Christians, we must always seek the higher ground.  The word hate is tossed around and used so often in our society.  We cannot have any room in our hearts for hate.  What does hate accomplish?  It definitely does not bring us closer to God, and it does not solve any difference that we may have with those that may be classified as “our enemies.”  Instead of hate, sow seeds of love.  If those who persecute us reject that love, we can rest easy knowing that we are doing God’s will.  A shining example of sowing love in the face of hatred and oppression was seen in a moving video that went viral this week of a Venezuelan young woman pleading with riot police to stand down and join them because they all share the same blood of their homeland.  She pleaded with them because she did not want any more violence and tried to appeal to their hearts because she knew that deep inside they did not want any more violence either because police were being killed as well.  This courageous young woman stared down and pleaded with those stoic riot police and even caught two of the women police officers crying under their helmets and face shields.  She could have easily been arrested right there and probably beaten as we’ve seen done in so many countries around the world, but she stood her ground and asked for unity and harmony for her people.  Not a word of hate come out of her mouth, but the love and concern for those who were her “enemies” is what made her witness so popular on the internet and an example of living out today’s gospel. 

Hate accomplishes nothing.  Jesus is calling us to perfection as Christians.  He is calling us to holiness of life so that we may win over those who are consumed and corrupted by hate.  A holy army of love is far more powerful than any army with weapons.  We must live out this gospel of loving our enemies so that we can become an army of saints.  Pope Francis said this morning that “to be a saint is not a luxury; it is necessary for the salvation of the world.”  We want to save our world and our homelands?  We must become saints!  Bury hatred, love your enemies, and win them over with love.  This is what Christ did, and all he did was win for us a glorious eternal homeland in heaven.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Why Do You Go to Mass?

“If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)

Why do we go to Mass?  Is it habit, ritual, obligation, or are we seeking something more?  Are we genuinely seeking Jesus Christ and the transformative experience that encountering him will no doubt cause in our life?  I bring to you these questions today because we need to deepen our understanding of what it is that we do here at this altar every Sunday.  In the gospel, Jesus says that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it and the total and complete fulfillment of the law takes place here on this altar where Christ, the spotless lamb, is sacrificed for us at every Mass. 

This week, Pope Francis continued his catechesis on the Eucharist at his Wednesday audiences and asked: “How do we experience the Eucharist?” He is challenging us, as I challenge you from time to time, to go deeper into the things we do in this church.  This is why he gives us three indicators to help us experience the Eucharist in a whole new way: 

The first indicator is our way of looking at or considering others. In the Eucharist, Christ is always renewing his gift of self, which he made on the Cross. His whole life is an act of total sharing of self out of love; thus, he loved to be with his disciples and with the people whom he had a chance to know…We all go to Mass because we love Jesus and we want to share, through the Eucharist, in his passion and his resurrection. But do we love, as Jesus wishes, those brothers and sisters who are the most needy? I wonder, and each one of us should wonder: I who go to Mass, how do I live this? Do I try to help, to approach and pray for those in difficulty? Or am I a little indifferent? Or perhaps do I just want to talk: did you see how this or that one is dressed? Sometimes this happens after Mass and it should not! We must concern ourselves with our brothers and sisters who need us because of an illness, a problem.

Strong words from the Holy Father who is challenging us to take our blinders off when we go to Mass and recognize those who are poor around us and those who need our help.  The second indicator he gives us is all about God’s mercy:

A second indication, a very important one, is the grace of feeling forgiven and ready to forgive. At times someone may ask: “Why must one go to Church, given that those who regularly participate in Holy Mass are still sinners like the others?” We have heard it many times! In reality, the one celebrating the Eucharist doesn’t do so because he believes he is or wants to appear better than others, but precisely because he acknowledges that he is always in need of being accepted and reborn by the mercy of God, made flesh in Jesus Christ. If any one of us does not feel in need of the mercy of God, does not see himself as a sinner, it is better for him not to go to Mass! We go to Mass because we are sinners and we want to receive God’s pardon, to participate in the redemption of Jesus, in his forgiveness.

Catholics should not have a superiority complex just because we go to Mass every Sunday.  We come because we recognize that we are in need of something: Christ’s mercy. We come because we need to be regenerated by God’s love.  This is why the Mass must always be a life-altering experience.  If we truly engage and encounter Christ, we have no choice but to change our lives.  Which then leads us to strengthen our church community which is the third indicator that the Holy Father presents: 

A last valuable indication comes to us from the relationship between the Eucharistic Celebration and the life of our Christian communities. We must always bear in mind that the Eucharist is not something we make; it not our own commemoration of what Jesus said and did. No. It is precisely an act of Christ! It is Christ who acts there, who is on the altar. It is a gift of Christ, who makes himself present and gathers us around him, to nourish us with his Word and with his life. This means that the mission and the very identity of the Church flows from there, from the Eucharist, and there always takes its shape…Through the Eucharist, Christ wishes to enter into our life and permeate it with his grace, so that in every Christian community there may be coherence between liturgy and life.

This reminds us that the Mass is not a private event but rather a very public work of the people.  This is what liturgy literally means in Greek:  the work of the people.  Christ sanctifies this work and sanctifies us so that we may transmit what we live in here to how we live out there.  So once again, I challenge you to ponder that first question and ponder how you approach these sacred mysteries:  Why do you go to Mass?

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Light of Matrimony

“Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” (Matthew 5:16)
When I was ordained a deacon 13 years ago, I was given a book by a priest friend that was written by a Vietnamese Cardinal that I had never heard of.  Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan was selected by Blessed John Paul II to preach the Lenten retreat to the pope and to the Roman Curia during the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000.  It was during that retreat that more details of Cardinal Thuan’s life in Vietnam came to light.  In 1975, he was named Archbishop of Saigon but was not allowed by the Communist regime to enter into the city and was placed under house arrest.  He was very famous for his work as a bishop in other parts of the country and the government saw him as a threat, so he spent the next 13 years of his life in prison.  He wanted to serve his people.  He wanted to provide light to them amidst the darkness that enveloped his country.  He began to write short catecheses on scraps of paper and found a way to smuggle them out to his people.  While in prison, the people took these teachings and formed a book out of them called the “Road to Hope.”  The people would also smuggle into prison a bottle of cough medicine for the bishop but it was not cough medicine, the bottle contained wine so that along with the crumbs of bread the bishop got from his food rations, he could celebrate Mass.  He would place a drop of wine in the palm of one hand and a crumb of bread in the other, and in that dark prison cell he would say the Mass from memory and offer the Divine Sacrifice.  Between his prayers and those scraps of paper, he was able to shepherd the people in some small way and let his light shine in that dark cell.  Among the many topics that he wrote about was on the family and the importance of upholding the sacrament of Holy Matrimony as a vocation.  Even while surrounded by darkness, he provided his people, and now us by extension, with an incredible teaching to illuminate our understanding of marriage and family.
With each passing day, I become more convinced that the challenge laid down by Jesus in today’s gospel to let our light shine so that others may see our good deeds must come from our families.  All of us as individuals are called to be the light of the world, but when you see a shining example of a family that radiates with Christ’s love, that is a powerful witness!  The Christian family must be a beacon that draws others to follow their example of love, and of course it must start with the head and heart of the family: the husband and wife / the father and mother.  If the light of Christ begins to shine from the very beginning of a marriage from the love that emanates from a husband and wife, then the family is set on a firm foundation that allows it to be a light for the world.  For this, young couples must understand the beauty of marriage if they are to let their light shine before all.
Cardinal Thuan’s beautiful catechesis on this sacrament taught that the first thing we must consider is that marriage is a vocation:
In our time the Church has mapped out a spirituality of marriage which allows us to see that marriage is the means by which the human race is to develop and flourish and that it is thus truly a vocation to holiness.  Are you surprised to hear of the 'vocation to be parents of a family'? People are mistaken when they restrict the idea of a vocation, that is, a calling to perfection, to the priest or religious alone. When, by means of the sacrament of Matrimony, two people solemnly promise to love one another in Christ for their entire lives, is this not a profession of faith a profession of vows?
He places marriage on par with priests and religious who consecrate their lives for the sake of the gospel.  If we view marriage as a divine calling, then the whole dynamic changes.  We begin to see this sacrament not as a rite of passage for a relationship but as something that two people have been called by God to enter into.  This is something the world does not understand as the Cardinal points out:
It is truly regrettable that the civilized world's comprehension of the Catholic doctrine concerning marriage is limited to some of its prohibitions. From these the world does not gain the slightest inkling that Jesus came to redeem humanity through love, and that through the sacrament of Matrimony humanity is enriched in an extraordinary way.
If only more couples preparing for this sacrament could understand this!  If only they could approach their wedding day not as a lavish event whose spiritual meaning keeps getting dimished by all the trappings, but approach the sacrament as a religious would approach his/her profession of vows or how a priest would approach his ordinations.  Oh how things would change if our young couples understood the magnitude of what they are doing so that they could in turn transform the world through their new families.  The love of Christ is that light that must shine through us particularly through our families.  The holier the family, the greater the light.  But how does a Christian husband and wife achieve this holiness?  Is it possible?  Of course it is:
To love your spouse is to act according to the will of God. When you realize this, you will understand that you can fulfill your vocation in the most ordinary circumstances of your life by perceiving God's call even in the most trifling activity a response to the call of God. This is a revelation that will revolutionize your whole life… The love that exists between a husband and wife is an extension of God's love. How uplifting and encouraging for the married couple is this love!  God has given you a loving spouse and beautiful children so that you may help one another to become holy. What have you done with this gift?...You must discover that you can and indeed have the responsibility to become holy in marriage and through marriage.
So being holy is not just a calling, but a responsibility when we receive this sacrament or any sacrament for that matter.  But when it comes to the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, the love between a husband and wife is Christ’s love poured out for them which they in turn pour out to their children and to all the Church.  To be the light of the world, we must recover the holiness of family and to recover the holiness of family, we must recover the holiness that must exist in this sacrament that is rightly called HOLY Matrimony.  It is time for our families to reclaim the holiness that rightly belongs to them so that we may indeed let our light shine before all.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Present Your Troubles to God

“Simeon was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel… “(Luke 2:25)

Dr. Scott Hahn offers us the following insight into today’s Feast of the Presentation of the Lord:  “Today’s feast marks the Presentation of the Lord Jesus in the Temple, forty days after he was born. As the firstborn, he belonged to God.  According to the Law, Mary and Joseph were required to take him to the Temple and “redeem” him by paying five shekels. At the same time, the Law required the child’s mother to offer sacrifice in order to overcome the ritual impurity brought about by childbirth.  So the feast we celebrate shows a curious turn of events. The Redeemer is redeemed. She who is all-pure presents herself to be purified. Such is the humility of our God. Such is the humility of the Blessed Virgin. They submit to the law even though they are not bound by it.”

It is rare that we get to celebrate this feast on a Sunday, but today is a feast about a God encountering his people.  It’s not so much about Jesus being presented in the temple as prescribed by the law, but rather Jesus going out to meet his people particularly in the person of Simeon who long waited to see the Messiah with his own eyes.  Taking our cue for Simeon whose prayers were heard, today is also a day to present to Jesus all of our prayers as well.  Every single day, many people walk through our church doors to present their burdens to God.  Like Simeon, they want consolation as well.  When we come to Mass on Sundays, we come to present to the Lord our hearts and souls.  If he gives himself totally to us in the Eucharist, how can we not give our total self to him?  Unfortunately we come in distracted by the problems that we carry out there.  We don’t totally disconnect from the world, which is why I get all bent out of shape when a cell phone goes off.  This is supposed to be our sanctuary, a sacred place, holy ground.  Yesterday during the Vigil Mass, a lady stood at the back exit door during the singing of the Gloria, she had the door opened with one hand and talking into her phone with the other.  She kept opening and closing the door, not being able to cut off the conversation.  I don’t know whom she was speaking to, but could that person be more important than the Almighty whose praises we were singing inside?  That’s why I propose to you that you start spiritually preparing for Mass at home before you even get into the car.  Turn off your phone at home.  Start mentally preparing yourself for an encounter with the Divine.  That way when you drive into our parking lot, you’re not distracted by anything else, and when you walk into the church, you heart is totally disposed to encounter the Living God.

All of us come into this church every Sunday carrying burdens, some of them very heavy.  Today, I want you to cast off the burden you are carrying and hand it over to our Savior.  Do it.  Right now.  Close your eyes.  Think of the biggest problem you are carrying around at this very moment.  Don’t look at me.  Don’t look at your watch.  Close your eyes.  Visualize that problem.  I don’t care how big it is.  Our God is bigger.  Now cast off that problem and place it here at the foot of the altar.  I want you to leave this church today at peace, consoled.  God listens to and answers each and every one of our prayers.  Simeon delighted to see our Savior.  Our Savior delights in answering our prayers.  May our prayer this day be the same as Simeon’s:  “Lord, now you may let your servant go in peace…your word has been fulfilled.”