The Gospel for Sunday, May 2nd, 2016

The Gospel for May 2nd, 2016: The Sixth Sunday of Easter

John 14: 23-29

Reflection:

Today’s gospel from John is part of Jesus’s discourse with the apostles at the Last Supper. With this conversation, Jesus is preparing His disciples to understand the events to come: His death and resurrection, His ascension to Heaven, and the descent of the Holy Spirit. We celebrate all these events as integral parts of the Easter season. Next Sunday, we will remember the Solemnity of the Ascension, the feast of Christ’s return to Heaven specifically. While I  have comprehended the significance of the resurrection as Christ’s victory over sin and death through most I my life, the ascension has always been harder to wrap my mind around. On one level, it is reasonable to accept it as one of the necessary steps in the salvation plan that is a mystery. However, I recently watched a Word on Fire video by Bishop Robert Barron on Youtube which sheds light on why it may be difficult for many contemporary people to fully appreciate the significance of the Ascension and Pentecost. Although I will not try to summarize all the details of his talk, “Why the Ascension of Jesus Matters,” I would highly recommend viewing the eight minute video and will reflect on today’s gospel in light of its content.

Probably like many Christians, I had always viewed the Ascension as a trip Jesus takes from Earth to Heaven, two entirely separate realms. This is a symptom of a modern, scientific thinking that tends to separate ideas into categories, parts, and schemes with its roots in the Aristotelian philosophy of ancient Greece. Such a world view naturally leads to Heaven and Earth as distinct categories and a view of salvation as existing in one place or the other (or in Hell as a third place). I always believed that if saved, my soul would leave Earth and move to Heaven (with no forwarding address for mail). Bishop Barron claims the ancient Jews did not view Heaven and Earth with a dichotomous understanding. Instead they viewed both as an interconnected part of God’s creation. In this view, one does not escape to the salvation of Heaven, but rather salvation purifies Earth and its people, bringing them more closely into God’s everlasting glory.

I think a helpful analogy is to imagine God and His creation as a beautiful quilt. Through the fall of humankind and its sin, so the quilt has become stained and the stitching is coming out. The patches appear at risk of falling off. Nevertheless, they are still connected and enjoy life in the quilt. They just need to be washed and repaired to more fully reflect the wondrous glory of the rest of the quilt. God who loves the entire quilt sends first Israel and then Jesus to work on the washing and repair job.

To continue this analogy, the ascension and descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, function to repair stitching by running thread back and forth from the unblemished part of the quilt, Heaven, to the soiled, damaged patches. Jesus brings the thread down in His incarnation; teaches believers how to help with repair and cleaning on the patches; runs the thread back to Heaven in His Ascension; and then sends the thread back again with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost which helps launch a full out repair and cleaning operation called the Church. The effect is a tighter interlacing which leads eventually to a seamless patchwork across the quilt. The restoration of the damaged patches means a state of peace and unity with the rest of God’s quilt.

Jesus reminds the Apostles in this reading, “I am going away and will come back to you. If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father; for the Father is greater than I” (John 14: 28). He is making it clear He is not abandoning his people, leaving them to relocate in Heaven. Instead, He is repairing the stitching, running the thread back to Heaven and sending the Holy Spirit with the thread back to them so that the perfect stitching of peace and unity may be restored. If we as damaged portions are to enjoy the greatness of the Father, we must be reconditioned to match the rest of the quilt. Of course the most exciting part of this reconditioning process is we, as Christ’s people and through the Holy Spirit and Church, are invited participate in and expedite this process. We help clean and stitch—or according to Jesus’s command, we love one another as He has loved us. The sooner we spread this love through the damaged patches, the sooner the restoration will be complete and God’s glory will course through the whole quilt.

 

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The Gospel for Sunday, April 24th, 2016

The Gospel for April 24th, 2016:  The Fifth Sunday of Easter

John 13: 31-33a, 34-35

Reflection:

I write this reflection after having spent two days as a parent-chaperone on a field trip to Washington D.C. For those who have not been to our nation’s capital, it is moving and illuminating in many respects, well-worth the visit for any American. Furthermore, many of the memorials speak to the Christian heritage of our country and provide many opportunities to contemplate the relationship between Christianity, democracy, freedom, and government. Without question, however, what made the greatest impression on me was a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The museum is organized chronologically on three levels, starting at the top of the building with the expressions of the anti-semitism in the Nazis’ rise to power and progressing downward through the war and the horrifying “Final Solution,” their plan to rid Germany and their conquered territories of all Jews and other peoples deemed inferior through a systematic and industrial-scale mass execution. As I progressed through the memorial, I frequently imagined the shock of the persecuted as each as they were increasingly being treated as livestock led to slaughter. Over and over again in my head, I heard Jesus’s words on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27: 46)? The Holocaust victims were treated with a relentless lack of mercy reminiscent of Jesus’s treatment at the hands of the authorities and His people during the Passion.

So when I read Jesus’s words in this gospel as His ordeal approaches, “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you should love one another” (John 13: 34), I find the crimes of the Holocaust a fitting test case to consider the absolute nature of His command. In particular, Adolph Eichmann caught my attention as I perused the artifacts and exhibits in the museum as a somewhat arbitrary but useful player to consider the extent of Jesus’s merciful call to love. Eichmann was the officer who oversaw the logistical aspects of herding millions of Jews on to trains, into ghettos, and eventually into camps for their termination. He escaped the 1945 Nuremburg War Tribunal to Argentina, but was eventually hunted down by Israeli intelligence, was captured to stand trial, and was executed by hanging in 1962. According to the Wikipedia article, his defense, like so many of the war criminals, was that he was just following orders and had no choice. In addition, his last words were, “I die believing in God.”

In considering this, first it should be said Jesus is very specific in his teaching to love one another as He has loved us. In Luke 6 He ties the exhortation to “love your enemies” (27, 35) to both the dimensions of mercy and forgiveness. He states first, “Be merciful, just as [also] your father is merciful” (36) and then,“Stop condemning and you will not be condemned” (37). With this in mind, would I have opposed the hanging of Adolph Eichmann or any of the Nazi war criminals despite full knowledge of their unfathomable sins if I had been alive in 1962? Am I capable of accepting that this is in fact what Jesus intended? More to the point, would I have dared to speak out against a death sentence for someone as deserving as Eichmann? And finally, what are we as Christians to make of his dying words that He believes in God?

As I read over these questions, I know immediately I might very well have avoided taking a position to save myself from criticism from those who would have demanded justice for all those deaths on his hands and for all those who mourn them, much to my shame. I still avoid such stances habitually rather than face criticism and disapproval. Still, I think Jesus is clear on this. Adolph Eichmann deserved our mercy and forgiveness with a life sentence as a creation of God the Father. This is evidenced in Jesus’s exemplary treatment of His own persecutors when He said on the cross, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 6: 34). His words are a model to us for such moments. This is further supported by the position taken by the Church: The Catholic Church is against the death penalty. We are a pro-life people in all respects because life is a gift from the Father and justice will be His, which He doles out with boundless mercy.

This brings me to the Eichmann’s last words about still believing in God. While I viscerally reel at the notion that such a man could believe in God, his statement of faith is an opportunity for prayer and contemplation. God the Father created Eichmann, and Jesus died on the cross to save him despite His sins. Even though he stoned his heart to Jesus’s call for many years in order to obey the evil orders from his superiors, there is good in him as there is in all of God’s creations. Therefore, if I open my heart even with reluctance, I can pray for his return to God in death, participating in God’s love and mercy, as we Christians do for all the departed. And what of the millions of innocents who died needlessly in the Holocaust? Their tragic and horrific suffering in life has ended. For those who turned to Him in their time of need (as I would like to think they all did in the face of such evil), I think it likely they were purified by that suffering, as they walked a path so similar to Jesus. So I pray with hope they are now with Him in eternal peace. Yes, we must remember them as the memorial begs us to do. But may we do so with complete faith in God’s mysterious, yet perfect justice.

The Gospel for Sunday, April 17th, 2016

The Gospel for Sunday, April 17th, 2016: The Fourth Sunday of Easter

John 10: 27-30

Reflection:

Standing by itself, today’s gospel sounds serene to the point of being superficial. Jesus’s metaphor is so straightforward and simple: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they shall never perish” (27-28).

Yet in a week when I have given in to numerous temptations, I am in no mood to be compared to a sheep. Do sheep really struggle to follow their shepherd as I do? That voice in me that want to make its own decisions is powerful, angry, and persuasive. If I am a sheep, then I am one angry, bad, black sheep who is stubborn!

I was going to end my reflection by stating how difficult is to be obedient when one feels that way. But then I decided to look at all of John 10. Perhaps I was heeding a wordless call from Jesus and didn’t even know it. What I found changed my attitude dramatically. This passage is not some white-washed poetry to put on a greeting card that makes difficult truths seem unrealistically easy. Jesus says these words to an audience of Jews around the temple who are impatiently interrogating Him as to whether or not He is the Messiah. They ask Him, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (John 10: 24).

His answer is not serene, but challenging and dangerous. He answers them with, “I told and you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify to me. But you do not believe, because you are not among my sheep” (25-26).

It is then that Jesus speaks the “[m]y sheep hear my voice” lines. The tension of that moment is on the edge of violence. Jesus ends his speech with, “The Father and I are one” (30). His audience responds in this way: “The Jews again picked up rocks to stone him” (31).

Jesus knows better than anyone His words are not easy, that to follow Him will require a depth of courage that is less like a sheep and more like the greatest heroes in the history of humanity. If we are to follow Him, we must deny ourselves and challenge those who would publically deny the truth of His divinity. Still, follow we must. Indeed, obey we must, if we are to be saved from a death that will separate us from God’s eternal love. So I am going to re-evaluate my view of being a sheep. Mary was a sheep at the Annunciation when she gave over her life, her body, and her future child to God’s will. Jesus was the ultimate sheep, the sacrificial lamb, who offered His earthly life for the sins of humanity. If I can listen and a follow like a good member of the flock as they did, I am in the best of  company.

The Gospel for Sunday, April 10th, 2016

The Gospel for April 10th, 2016: Third Sunday of Easter

John 21: 1-19

Reflection:

In chapter 21 of John’s gospel another account is told of an appearance of the risen Jesus to disciples who do not at first recognize Him. This happens multiple times after the resurrection.  First, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene weeping at His tomb, and it is not until He speaks her name that she knows Him (John 20: 11-18).  Next, Jesus joins two disciples on the road to Emmaus who spend hours with Him, but they recognize the risen Christ only after He breaks bread with them (Luke 24: 13-35). And now John tells of how seven disciples, including Peter and Thomas who have already seen Jesus, encounter Him after a fruitless fishing trip standing on the shore in the morning sun and “did not realize it was Jesus” (4).

Like the disciples going to Emmaus, it only after a familiar exchange do they see it is their Lord. With a miracle reminiscent of their initial call to discipleship in Luke 5, Jesus, seeing they have not caught fish, tells them as before to put their nets back in the water. They obey and once again there nets are filled. Furthermore, it is following this that John says to Peter, “It is the Lord” (7). Finally, they share a meal with Jesus right there on the beach.

There are two points I take away from these stories of difficulty in recognizing Jesus after the resurrection. One is an understanding of the importance of the familiar in raising our awareness of His presence. Jesus uses the familiar to reach out to the disciplines in each of these situations: To Mary Magdalene, He calls her by name; to the travelers he shares a meal; and finally, to the seven fishermen, he grants them a miracle catch similar to when He first called them.

The second point is the significance of the familiar in helping us recognize Jesus in unfamiliar situations where we often need Him most. Consider the aid He provides in each of these situations after He is identified. Mary is comforted; the travelers learn the truth of His victory over death; and the fishermen’s nets are filled. The familiar for us Christians who did not live during the time of Christ is the encounters we have with Him through prayer and the Church. Like the disciples in the examples previously mentioned, if we are to recognize Him when he comes to us in our times of need outside of Church, we must develop a familiar relationship with Him through regular prayer and participation in the sacraments. With an established, dynamic relationship in place, we will be more likely to see Jesus’s providence and mission in our lives outside of Church, especially in the struggles and tragedies that inevitably touch us during our time on Earth.  It is not to say he will not come to us without that relationship; but the question must be asked, will we recognize Him?

The Gospel for Sunday, April 3rd, 2016

The Gospel for April 3rd, 2016: Second Sunday of Easter

John 20: 19-31

Reflection:

There is a story behind this reflection that demonstrates what I wish to share about this reading: Jesus is found through His Church. In the beginning, these blogs were inspired by Catholic author and speaker Matthew Kelly’s suggestion that reading the gospel before Sunday is one way to prepare one’s self to encounter Jesus in the mass and combat to experience of boredom admitted by many contemporary Catholics in his research. In writing these reflections, I have hoped to model authentic, honest reading and invite conversation that prepares the way for a deeper encounter at mass in the Liturgy of the Word and in the priest’s homily. Over the last nine months of weekly blogging for this purpose, I have been amazed at how the gospel can deepen one’s understanding of and relationship with Jesus. Therefore, the act of writing has often been quite inspiring, although more time-consuming than originally anticipated. Consistently, the reading experience has felt fresh and renewing.

However, this week was different. I read this gospel of Doubting Thomas three times and felt mentally flat. True, I see myself in Thomas, who needs proof of Jesus’s presence to believe in His resurrection. But this was not a new insight, and I did not know what to say about it. I was having trouble finding what Jesus was saying to me in this gospel. After the third reading, I decided to turn to my favorite online ministry, Word on Fire, and found a homily on this gospel from Bishop Robert Barron, whose books and articles I have found profoundly enriching. (It is a fascinating 15 minutes for those inclined to check it out. Click here.)

A light bulb flashed on for me in Barron’s sermon with this observation: Thomas’s absence from the gathering of the disciplines led to his missing an encounter with the risen Jesus; and consequently, he is then in a position of having to take their word of Christ’s presence. Barron points out that we are a community of believers as a Church, and Christ comes to us when we gather in His name. The modern notion of having a personal relationship with Jesus without His Church does not work. Like Thomas, we are missing spending time with Him if we do not participate in the life of His Church. Over time the relationship falters due to a lack of contact. We become doubters. For an introvert like me with an anti-social streak, this is necessary counsel. If I wish to have life in Jesus, I need to gather with other Christians in the many places the Church lives. This is not only at mass, but also in the many ministries where the Church carries out its missions of evangelization, stewardship, and service. We spend quality time with Jesus in these endeavors. We know His love and our faith is renewed.

In listening to the homily, I realized I had turned to the Church in my moment of need by going to the Word of Fire online ministry to help me find new meaning in the gospel. Instead of trying to going it alone, I went to a place where Christians gather. Granted, it is not a building with a cross, but that is precisely the point. Christ’s Church is not confined to any building; it is our community that makes up His body. This community extends to Heaven in the eternal lives of the saints and is available everywhere if we seek to serve God and be guided by the Holy Spirit. I find this a source of infinite hope and life-changing.