Sunday, March 27, 2016

Flickers of Light

"The Prince of life, who died, reigns immortal." --Easter Sequence

Who would've believed?  Mary Magdalene shows up at Peter and John's door with the greatest claim in human history.  How could they not run to see for themselves that the Master wasn't there?  Peter and the disciples were afraid, ashamed, lost.  Their Master had been killed in the most gruesome and violent way.  The Man who walked on the sea, calmed the storms, fed the 5000, cured the sick and raised the dead couldn't save himself from the hands of evil men.  How could this be?  All these questions in their heads and now Mary shows up with this claim that the Lord isn't in his tomb?  How could they not run?

We gather this morning to celebrate a Jewish carpenter rising from the dead.  It is the greatest claim in human history and yet the center of our faith.  Last night at the Easter Vigil, before I sang the Easter proclamation, darkness enveloped this church and the only light was from that long Paschal Candle which represents Christ and his light slowly filling our lives and this church. (I've always said, if you've never been to the Easter Vigil, please move it up on your bucket list for it is the night of nights.)  During the Easter Proclamation, I sang "Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice, arrayed with the lightning of his glory, let this holy building shake with joy”  And boy did this holy building shake with joy as we sang the Gloria.  We gathered in darkness waiting for light, waiting for Light himself, waiting for the small flicker of light to overcome the darkness of our lives.  Christ is risen! Nothing else matters. This is why this building shook.  This is why we gather in the light of Easter morning.  Christ is risen indeed.  For Mary, for the disciples, and for us, nothing will ever be the same.  Light has finally overcome the power of darkness.  The Resurrection, God’s greatest work, was a work of mercy.  Instead of taking vengeance on mankind for killing his only Son, He freed mankind from sin and death and gave us the gift of immortality.  How can we ever doubt his love for us?

Yet in our fallen state, we doubt.  We let darkness overwhelm us, seduce us, trap us, and we forget about this love, this light.  Last night, right before the Easter Vigil began, a firefighter friend of mine texted me.  He was in a dark place.  He had just witnessed some gruesome, something fatally gruesome while on duty and felt that he could not overcome the darkness that he was feeling.  It was about 90 minutes until the Vigil began and I told him to get to any Vigil in town immediately so he could experience for himself during that beautiful, divine liturgy Christ’s light overpowering the darkness of the night and overpowering the darkness in our lives.  He couldn’t make it last night and he was on duty today, but his last text was a sign of hope, a sign of light slowly entering his life again: “I’m on shift [on Easter].  I thank God for this career.  To be able to to help the community on the day the Lord conquered death!”  I could see the light in his generous heart even through our texts.  Yes there is great darkness in our world, but we have been called to be those flickers of light just like all the candles that lit up this church last night.  We have a message to share.  We have a wondrous story to tell.  We have light to spread through a dark world.  As Christians, we have a singular purpose, a singular mission: to tell this story just as Mary did on that first Easter morning.  Christ has truly risen.  Light has overcome darkness and sin.  Nothing else matters.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Sharing the Joy of the Priesthood

“If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”  (John 13:14)

This evening we gather to celebrate two momentous events that touch our lives every single day.  On this blessed night in which we begin the Holy Triduum with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we celebrate the Institution of the Eucharist and the Institution of the Priesthood.  Both are essential for our lives as Catholics and both are uniquely linked: without the priesthood there is no Eucharist.  Tonight we will not only hear the words that we hear every Sunday, “Take and eat,” but we will also visibly see what our Lord did for his disciples the night before he died when he knelt before them and began to wash their feet.  Last Sunday in the second reading we heard of Jesus humbling himself.  If it was not enough that he became one of us, if it was not enough that he gave us his body and blood both at this table and on the cross, tonight we hear of our Lord literally becoming like a slave when he washes the feet of his disciples.  Peter’s response, instead of refusal, could’ve been the response of role reversal that St. John the Baptist had when Jesus approached him for baptism, “you should be baptizing me.”  Instead of refusal, Peter probably should’ve said, “Master, I should be washing your feet!”  But this was not the example Jesus wanted to give.  He wanted to leave them a model of service:  “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”  Serve one another.  Love one another.  If you want to be the greatest, you have to be the least.

The washing of the feet is a humbling experience in the life of the priest, but one that brings us great joy because, like the Eucharist, it links us in such a unique way to the actions of our Lord.  As priests we are called to serve all, to feed all, to anoint all.  After the washing of the feet tonight, the oils that were blessed and consecrated in the Chrism Mass will be presented.  This action unites us in a special way with that Mass that we celebrated with our Archbishop on Tuesday morning where we, your priests, renewed our priestly promises to God and to you our holy people.  These oils that will be presented serve as a reminder of our priestly ministry to anoint you with the oil of gladness as the Archbishop reminded us on Tuesday, and Pope Francis so famously reminded all of us in one the most epic homilies of his Pontificate which he delivered during the Chrism Mass just two weeks after being elected.   Pope Francis reminded us back then: “A good priest can be recognized by the way his people are anointed: this is a clear proof. When our people are anointed with the oil of gladness, it is obvious: for example, when they leave Mass looking as if they have heard good news. Our people like to hear the Gospel preached with “unction”, they like it when the Gospel we preach touches their daily lives, when it runs down like the oil of Aaron to the edges of reality…And when they feel that the fragrance of the Anointed One, of Christ, has come to them through us, they feel encouraged to entrust to us everything they want to bring before the Lord: “Pray for me, Father, because I have this problem”, “Bless me Father”, “Pray for me” – these words are the sign that the anointing has flowed down to the edges of the robe, for it has turned into a prayer of supplication, the supplication of the People of God…The priest who seldom goes out of himself, who anoints little – I won’t say “not at all” because, thank God, the people take the oil from us anyway…”

And it isn’t only in anointing us that the priest gives of himself, but every time at stands at that altar to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and pronounces the very words of Christ: “Take this…for this is my body which will be given up for you.  Take this…for this is my blood.” It is not only Christ but the priest himself who offers his own flesh and blood for the sanctification of his people.  This is what we celebrate tonight: the unity of the priesthood and the Eucharist, the unity of the priest to his people, and the unity of the people to this Most Blessed Sacrament for it is Christ among us, Christ feeding us, Christ serving us made present through the anointed hands of a priest.  Pray for your priests so that we may model the Good Shepherd more and more. That we may, as Pope Francis says, take on the odor of sheep, and if we sometimes fail in anointing you with the oil of gladness, take it from us, rip it away from us.  We too are sinners and at times forget how sacred the task is that has been assigned to us.  This is why tonight is so important.  This is why we fall to our knees to wash your feet, for it not only serves as a reminder to you of Christ’s humility, but a reminder to us of how unworthy we are to participate in the priesthood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  We are called to share with you the oil of gladness.  What a life!  What an adventure!  What a joy to be a priest!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Following the Lord

“Jesus proceeded on his journey up to Jerusalem.” (Luke 19:28)

We begin today’s liturgy with the blessing of the palms and the reading of the gospel of Christ’s triumphant entrance into Jerusalem.  Those first moments of today’s Mass are sometimes forgotten after the long reading of the passion, but it merits our attention as we begin Holy Week.  When we hear that Jesus is going to Jerusalem at the beginning of the liturgy it is because “the Church anticipates her response to the Gospel saying: `Let us follow the Lord.’ This clearly expresses the theme of Palm Sunday…Being Christian means considering the way of Jesus Christ as the right way for being human as that way which leads to our destination, to a completely fulfilled and authentic humanity…being Christian is a path or, better, a pilgrimage; it is to travel with Jesus Christ, to journey in the direction he has pointed out and is pointing out to us.”  Pope Benedict XVI preached those words on Palm Sunday six years ago, and they still resonate today.

When we finish that gospel reading at the beginning of the liturgy, the priest invites the people to follow the Lord as we wave our palms during the procession.  Today I invite you to do the same as we begin this most holiest of weeks.  Follow the Lord.  Walk in his footsteps.  Humility is required to walk in the footsteps of another, but the second reading today reminds us that humility is a virtue that our Lord embraced when he became human and obediently accepted death on a cross.  I finish with the words of Pope Francis from this morning who echoed what his predecessor said five years ago: “Let us walk this path, pausing in these days to gaze upon the crucifix; it is `the royal seat of God.”

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Desperation of a Sinner

“…forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:13:14)

She stood there.  Waiting for judgment. Waiting for death.  She never could have expected that she would walk away from what was supposed to be her execution to a new life overflowing with the mercy of God.  What possessed these men to bring that woman caught in adultery to Jesus? Why were they so bloodthirsty?  They really didn’t care about her or what she had done.  All they wanted to do was trap the Lord.  But what if it had been one of us?  How many of us have often felt like this woman when we have sinned?  Alone, desperate, abandoned, judged, condemned.  I count myself in this as well.  Why is it that we don’t trust in the mercy of God as much as we should?  These men come to distort the law before the very Author of the law.  The law was not given to us to condemn, but to bring us closer to God.  How are their actions bringing this woman any closer to God?  This is a corruption of the law, which is why Jesus disarms them when he says: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  We are not without sin.  We cannot condemn.  This is the point that Jesus makes to the woman when they are alone.

This also happens in the confessional. It is just Jesus and us.  Yes, the priest is acting in the person of Christ, but he is not there to condemn.  He is there to dispense Divine Mercy.  He is there to unshackle us from the chains and burden of sin and to tell us the same words that Jesus tells the woman at the end of the gospel: “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”  We go from desperation to salvation.  From lost to found.  From death to life.  Much like the prodigal son in last week’s gospel.  This woman, who was probably certain she was going to die, was given new life by Jesus.  Not just any life.  A life filled with God’s mercy.  A life filled with infinite possibilities for peace and happiness with God walking by her side.  Everything else in her life now seemed trivial because she was born again that day.

The words of St. Paul in the second reading could very well be the words of this woman when the apostle says that he considers everything a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Jesus.  St. Paul had serious sin as well.  He had the blood of martyrs on his hands, which made his story of forgiveness and redemption and encounter with the Lord just as extraordinary as the one we hear about in today’s gospel.  Paul considers everything else rubbish because Jesus has forgiven him, because Jesus gave him new life, new purpose.  Paul goes from persecuting Christians to being persecuted himself, but this does not concern him because Christ is at his side.  The Lord rescued him as he rescued the woman.  There is a verse that we repeat in the Liturgy of Hours during the Lenten season that comes to mind: “God himself will set me free from the hunter’s snare.  From those who would trap me with lying words…and from the hunter’s snare.”  From whomever or whatever is oppressing us, God will come to our rescue to grant us forgiveness and new life.

Yet something is always holding us back.  We don’t want to take the next step that for many is making a good confession this Lent.  What is it that prevents us from feeling liberating like this woman?  Towards the end of the second reading, Paul writes: “…forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” Still, the sins of our past, the sins we have confessed still shackle us, still hold us back.  Do we not realize that when we go to confession it is as if we write down our sins on a paper that God shreds into pieces?  If God forgives and forget, why can’t we? The hopefully soon to be saint, Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, preached during the Lenten Retreat to St. John Paul II and the Roman Curia some 16 years ago that “Jesus has a terrible memory.”  And aren’t we better for it? Yet we still hold on to those sins like someone desperate to paste together all those pieces of paper that were our sins that the Lord has ripped up and thrown to the wind.  We need to “forget what lies behind.”  Salvation is not found there.  Paul is correct in telling us that we must “strain forward to what lies ahead” with our ultimate goal being a life totally dedicated to service to Jesus with everything else counting as a loss.  St. Paul and this woman found a new life in Christ, but first they had to accept the forgiveness that was being offered to them. We must let go of past hurts.  If Jesus forgets our sins, why can’t we?

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Waiting For the Prodigal Son

“While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20)

A week ago last night, 14 students that I taught in 8th grade about 12 years ago, were all gathered in New York City and during dinner they took a group picture.  Many of them I haven’t heard from in a long time, but two of these kids sent me the picture separately  a couple of minutes apart.  I was thrilled to see them gathered together.  They all grew up together in grade school and yet life, and I like to think the Lord, keeps bringing them together.  Later on that night, a little past my bedtime, they called me through FaceTime and I talked to many of them for about 10 minutes.  I was overjoyed to catch up with some of them that I haven’t heard from in year.  Others have stayed in touch, but don’t hear from them that often. 

For me, this was a Prodigal Son moment.  Almost every single Sunday, I see a child come back to Church and I welcome them back just like the Merciful Father did in today’s gospel.  Going back to that picture that I was sent, I know many of my old students are scattered throughout the country and world for that matter, doing great things that make me proud, yet many, but not all, have wandered far from the safe confines of the small church where we used to celebrate school Mass every Friday morning.  Many times I feel like the Father in the Prodigal Son parable who sits every day waiting for them to return.  Waiting for them to remember what I so lovingly taught them, and what they so lovingly embraced from the Lord when they were younger.  I will admit that nothing gives me greater joy than when one of them returns home to the Church, when one of them calls me up and says, “Father, I’ve been lost and I need to go to confession.”  Just like the prodigal son, they may forget briefly who they are (Christians) and where they came from, but when things don’t make sense, when things seem lost, and when “a life of dissipation” gets old and tiring and unfulfilling, they know they can walk into any church in the world and feel like they never left.  And they know that they could always pick up the phone and reconnect with the priest from their childhood.  (Today I’m being overly explicit, but if those kids only knew how many homilies I’ve written and posted that have been implicitly directed and written for them.)

There are many times that I sit on the steps of this church right out there and just pray for all the souls that I have encountered through my ministry and who have forgotten the Father’s love.  I sit there, almost symbolically, because I know that no one is going to show up during the late hours that I sit out there, but I do it kind of to feel closer to the Merciful Father in the gospel because that ultimately should be our goal in the spiritual life: to be like Him.  But for our purposes on this Fourth Sunday of Lent, I want to direct your attention to two pivotal moments in this parable.  The first has to do with the younger son coming to grips and realizing that he has sinned against his Father.  I was listening to Bishop Robert Barron this morning who has a different take on this admission than I do, but I find it intriguing nonetheless.  When the son thinks up this plan to go and say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you, “ that is like a confession.  All of us prepare our confession before we go and actually utter the words to the priest.  Like the prodigal son, we go over and rehearse in our mind and heart what we are going to say.  But here is what is striking about this confession:  the prodigal son never gets to finish it.  Behold the second pivotal moment I want you to pay attention to.  The Father sees his son at a distance, goes off and runs out to greet him.  And when the son starts his confession, the father doesn’t let him finish.  He quickly orders that his son be clothed and have his dignity restored.  So many times we wander into that confessional looking as worn and as tattered as the prodigal son.  What confession does, and the priest’s absolution accomplishes is restoring us to the dignity of being children of the Father: clothed in splendor and made to inherit divine life. 

Like the Merciful Father in the parable, many priests sat in confessionals this weekend waiting for their children to come home.  A priest friend of mine told me that he sat for four hours in his confessional and only 4 people came.  Thankfully in the almost 8 hours we heard confession here at our parish, our priests never stopped receiving penitents.  And while I am glad to see or hear every person that enters my confessional or sits across from me when I don’t have a confessional, I still sit there and pray for all my parishioners, all my children to surprise me like the prodigal son and enter that sacred sacramental space.  Which leads me to my last story.  In my first parish, every Advent and Lent, we would hold penitential services where my pastor and I would hear confessions for several hours.  Now there was a mother whose son was always at football practice who would tell me that I wasn’t allowed to leave the confessional until her son showed up.  So sometimes the lines were long enough that I didn’t need to wait, but sometimes I would be done for some time and I would sit there in the quiet of the church waiting for this wonderful kid to show up.  He always did.  What was beautiful was not his faithfulness to the sacrament or even his obedience to his mother, but that each time he would open the doors to see me sitting by the altar, he would always smile and that smile would light up the now darkened church.  That smile was a confirmation of God’s mercy at work.  That smile speaks to the power of the sacrament of confession.  That smile is the smile that every priest has when one of their children return.  That smile is a reflection of the love and mercy of God at work in our hearts.  Yes God will wait for us, but this Lent, let us not wait for God to run towards us:  it’s time to run back to Him!