Sunday, February 28, 2016

Second Chances

“Repent, says the Lord; the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17)

God is good to us.  So very good.  Again and again he opens his arms so that we may seek forgiveness and comfort in his Divine Presence.  The theme of second chances and the universal Lenten call to repentance are present throughout the readings today.  God reveals himself to Moses in the first reading to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  Here we find Moses after he has fled from Egypt after killing an Egyptian that was striking one of the Israelites.  Moses in the next chapter would object to God’s plan feeling that he lacked eloquence or that the people would not believe him.  Yet God puts his trust in his servant Moses, and even though Moses had Egyptian blood on his hands and sought exile because of it, God still elevates him to this position of leadership. 

St. Paul picks up this theme of the exodus in the second reading reminding the Corinthians that the people of Israel despite having been led by the “cloud” of God out of Egypt through the Red Sea and into the desert, they turned away from Him.  The Israelites actually saw the mighty hand of God at work and saw the wonders that God did, but as saw St. Paul points out, God still was not pleased with many of them and for that they did not live to see the Promised Land.  Paul’s is a cautionary tale that we must always be in a state of sanctifying grace.  This is where Jesus picks up in the Gospel where he calls us to repent not once but twice.  Here again, we see God offering us a second chance as we see in the parable of the fig tree.  The owner wants to cut the fruitless tree down but the gardener wants to tend to the tree for one more year so that it produces fruit.  God is always at work to give us another chance, another shot at redemption.  And today he is extending his salvific hand towards us as we struggle under the weight of our sin.  The opening prayer today says: “O God, author of mercy…look graciously on this confession of our lowliness, that we, who are bowed down by our conscience, may always be lifted up by your mercy.”  His hand is ready to lift us up and grasp us in love and mercy.

This past week, I visited an elderly couple who were celebrating their 51st wedding anniversary.  Unfortunately, the bride is on in years, her eyesight is failing and barely leaves her house anymore.  So I visited this couple in order to anoint her and give them both communion because now the groom spends most of his days taking care and tending to his bride.  After I anointed her and they received Holy Communion, I asked them to hold hands so that I may bless their marriage as they approached their anniversary.  When I saw those two hands, worn down by years so tenderly grasp each other tightly, it was as if that grasp spoke to the love and tenderness of God.  It spoke of the fidelity they have for one another and a love that has grown over 51 years. It reminded me of the little things in this life that speak to the love of God.  Today the Lord wants us to hold his hand just like that couple held each other’s hands.  Hold it tightly.  Hold it firmly and always remember that our God is a God of second chances, of third chances, of fourth and fifth chances, of fiftieth and one hundred chances.  As one of our priests like to say in confession, it doesn’t matter how many times we fall because of sin, what matters is how many times we get up.  Today he is calling us to repent and calling us to get up and grasp his hand ever so tightly yet again.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

In Pursuit of Perfection

“[The Lord Jesus Christ] will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself.” (Phil 3:21)

Yesterday morning, I woke up for Mass and read that day’s gospel, and the last verse of has been with me in thought and prayer ever since: “Be perfect, just like your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48).”  I thought about this verse in light of todays gospel of the Transfiguration because this Jesus transfigured is and must be the perfection that we as Christians must aspire to.  Yet we hear the word perfect and think it is something beyond our grasp.  Think carefully about our defeatist view of perfection: Why would our Lord tell us to be perfect if he did not think we were capable of reaching it?  As is the case with most of us, our Lord thinks more highly of us than we do.  He sees the potential that each of us has, and he sees beyond our lowliness and sees something glorious.  We are offered the account of the Transfiguration to remind us that this Lenten journey is going to end in the beauty of Christ glorified after the resurrection.  In the meantime, we strive to perfect our lives and to grow closer to Christ.  But boy is it hard to be perfect.

Going all the way back to when I was a child, I already knew that I was a frustrated perfectionist.  One day in fourth or fifth grade, I remember going to the school library and one particular book caught my eye: “How To Be a Perfect Person In Just Three Days.”  I immediately checked it out.  It was a very clever book and I don’t want to spoil how the author reaches his conclusion, but as I look back on this childhood experience, it only emphasizes the need that we all have in our hearts to be perfect just our heavenly Father is perfect.  So how do we achieve this?  Well the end of the gospel tells us quite clearly and directly from the voice of the Father:  listen to Jesus.  We have a long way to go, but if we listen to the Lord, if we center our lives on the Lord, and if we continue practicing our faith in a devout and disciplined way, then perfection and holiness are very much within our grasp. 

In regards to “practicing” our faith, Father Paul Scalia during the homily at the Funeral Mass of his father, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, said the following yesterday: “[My father] was a practicing Catholic, "practicing" in the sense that he hadn't perfected it yet. Or rather, Christ was not yet perfected in him.” (Father Paul and I were on the same wavelength because I didn’t see or read his homily until Sunday afternoon and was able to insert this gem into the homily of my evening Mass.)  We haven’t perfected our faith because Christ has not yet been perfected in us, so we continue “practicing” and we continue looking up at the glorified and transfigured Christ with the same wonder and awe that the three disciples did.  And we also know that we are slowly brought to perfection through our celebration of these Sacred Mysteries, for it is here in the Mass that we experience a bit of Mount Tabor every Sunday.  As Dr. Scott Hahn puts it so eloquently, “Mass is heaven on earth.”  This weekend I shared a picture that Dr. Hahn posted on his Facebook page that you can see below.  We may look up at the altar and only see a priest elevating a host, but what is really happening is all the angels and heavenly hosts surrounding the presence of Christ who dares to come down and touch us and feed us in the Eucharist.  Yes, we have a long way to go to attain perfection, but there’s no harm in practicing as we continue our journey until Christ is brought to perfection in us.  Until then, heed the voice of the Father this Lent: look to our Lord, his Chosen One, and listen to him!

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Sound of the Desert

“Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert…” (Luke 4:1)

Listen…….pause for 30 seconds….don’t read any further and just listen…to silence….

That sound is so rare.  Many of us avoid silence.  I know there have been times in my life that I have avoided it, but yet the most blessed times I have had in my spiritual life are when I have embraced it.  Only in silence can we listen to the voice of God.  Only in silence can we listen to one another in a culture where we constantly try to yell over the other.  On this First Sunday of Lent, we journey with Jesus into the desert where the gospel tells us that he had no food and was tempted by the devil.  Another thing Jesus encountered in the desert was silence.  There was no better way to prepare for his bout with the devil and for his public ministry than to be embraced by the silence that allows the voice of the Father to be crystal clear.

So why are we afraid of silence?  Why do feel the need to constantly fill our lives with noise?  We are told that friendships are fostered by good communication, but I have found that my greatest friends and I can be together in perfect silence in a car, at a restaurant, or just about anywhere and not say a word and yet communicate so much.  My grandfather was one of the gentlest souls I ever encountered and he rarely spoke.  In the silence of his actions is how he communicated his greatest lessons.  My father and I when we go fishing have sometimes gone through long periods of time without talking while our lines are in the water.  The only sound is the waves and the breeze.  It’s not that we have nothing to talk about.  Quite the contrary.  Silence at times speaks volumes and I’m not talking about passive aggressive silent treatment.  I’m talking about the silence that communicates so much love.  Just look at St. Joseph who said nothing in the Bible.  Look at the brief words of Mary who through her silence taught her son so much.  We need to make room in our lives for silence.

This begins in prayer and in particular in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.  This week a friend passed along an article along from Cardinal Robert Sarah who is in charge of Divine Worship in the Vatican.  The article was on the virtue of silence in the liturgy.  Now I’m not perfect in this aspect because there have been Masses where silence has been almost non-existent, but as a priest I have always tried to instill silence as the Roman Missal demands into the celebration of the Mass.  I do this more in my celebration of weekday Masses, but I have to be more consistent with this on Sunday.  We need silence before Mass.  We need silence after the readings and homily.  We need silence after Communion.  And we need silence after Mass is over.  How else are we going to process this mind-boggling mystery that we celebrate every Sunday of Jesus becoming present to us to speak to us and feed us.? (Side note: One of the things Pope Francis insisted on in his trip to Mexico was quite time in front of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe)

This is our challenge this Lent.  As we journey with Jesus into the desert, we must make room for silence in our lives.  Sit in the Perpetual Adoration Chapel where a word is never spoken.  Go for a walk or a jog without your headphones and without music and just listen to the wind.  Listen to what our Lord listened to during his 40 days in the desert: nothing but silence that welcomes the voice of the Father. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Going Deep

"Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” (Luke 5:4) 

Ever since I can remember, my father has been taking me fishing. Now that I'm a priest, we usually do it in the summer when I'm on vacation. We've fished from piers, bridges, beaches, skiffs, big party boats and our own personal boat. We always go to the Florida Keys and never stray too far from shore choosing to fish the back country which is always fun. This past summer we were blessed with a week of unprecedented great weather. Great weather for fishing means having no wind. We've never spent a week with no wind in the Keys, but that is what the Good Lord gave us. The first morning we were there my father kicked me out of bed and simply said, "Let's go fishing." Again, not a drop of wind and my father plots a course on the GPS out to the Atlantic Ocean. Now I'm not necessarily afraid of the sea, I just have a profound respect for it. My father wanted to go fishing for big yellow-tail snapper, so we were going into very deep waters that were unknown to me that were normally very rough and choppy. But not on this day. The sea was calm. As soon as we dropped the first line, we got a bite and then another and then...well it was as close to the miraculous catch in the Gospel as we were gonna get. We spent five and half hours out there with no wind, in the scorching sun, reeling in fish after fish. Unfortunately, because of Florida Wildlife Laws, we couldn't haul in enough fish to cause the boat to sink, but we did do enough damage out there that we were thoroughly satisfied with the catch. All because we put out into deep water. Even though it is unknown, there is always something joyful and satisfying to be found there. 

The Lord is inviting us to go to the deep water this Sunday. We cannot accomplish much staying close to shore where we are comfortable and feel safe. We need to be challenged and that is what Jesus is doing today. We have to deepen our faith, abandon the status quo, throw our nets down to see what blessings we will catch. 

To use another timely analogy on this Super Bowl Sunday, Jesus wants us to "go deep." In football, the safe play is to run the ball, play it close to the vest, throw short passes. But every now and then if you want to be really successful, you have to throw the ball deep to stretch the defense and look for the quick score and allow you to run other plays more effectively. Of course, going deep has risks, but the rewards are great. Those teams that play it safe and can't go deep don't make it very far.

God has a plan for each and every one of us especially as we get ready to begin Lent on Wednesday. To deviate from it is to go against his will. He wants us to go out into the deep, unchartered, and unknown waters. There we will find great blessings and the ability to deepen our relationship with him. Will it be challenging?  Will we experience some fear as the disciples do?  Yes. But if Jesus is calling us into the deep, how can we possibly be afraid of where is inviting us to go?  It was only out in the deep that Simon fell to his knees and realized the possibilities, unworthy as he was, of a relationship with this Jesus. Imagine what God has in store for you if you get our of your comfort zone and allow him to lead you out into those rich, bountiful, and teeming deep waters.