The Gospel for Sunday, November 27th, 2016

The Gospel for November 27th , 2016: “The Unknown Day and Hour”

Matthew 24: 37-44

Reflection: The Advent Wake-up Call

On this first Sunday of Advent, 2016, I would like to begin by sharing an insight from Catholic writer and speaker Matthew Kelly about this season. On his CD called “Becoming the Best Version of Yourself,” he observes, ‘There’s genius in Catholicism.’ In particular he mentions the timing of Advent as providing the reminder we need to repent, to turn back to Jesus, at a time when the press of modern life has distracted us completely from the basic simplicity of loving Jesus and neighbor in joyful hope of His coming. Consider November 2016. During this month in addition to all the usual challenges of family and work life, I have been bewildered by an acrimonious presidential election that has had all the epic drama of a Shakespearean play. I turn on the TV to find marquee matchups in both college football and basketball that are irresistible, even during Thanksgiving family gatherings. And let’s not forget the commercial onslaught of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday. Is it any wonder we need a reminder from our Church to “stay awake!” (42). Yes, Matthew, there’s genius in Catholicism.

And so right on time comes the Advent season to remind us that just as Jesus’s first coming into the world was unexpected and missed by errant human understanding—after all, could the Messiah really come as a baby born in poverty and then grow up to be executed as a scandalized criminal? It is unbelievable. Only those whose hearts were filled with faith and love recognized His arrival and believed. Our worship and celebration of Advent and Christmas are not dues to be paid to a miserly savior. They are spiritual exercises to renew our hearts, to cultivate the disposition of love and faith so that we will be ready to fulfill our roles in the theo-drama of the salvation of humanity. God’s grace will only work through an unselfish heart that is ready to believe. When Jesus says, “For you do not know on which day your Lord will come” (42), this is not a threat. It is a paradigm shift! It is says this is not a game to played with human cunning in attempt to escape eternal damnation. Instead, it is an invitation to be with Jesus right now through His church and the Holy Spirit. Our life of joy and peace is all around us right now if we just pay attention and open our hearts. For as we look back on His words two thousand years later, we remember that He has already come into His kingdom. His crucifixion, resurrection, and finally His victory over sin and death are complete! We just need to say Yes! to our Savior again and again.

True, the lure of the worldly desires and fears still tempt us today as they have throughout human history. It takes a level of commitment and focus beyond our individual willpower to resist their ability to harden our hearts to Jesus’s love. But God in His infinite wisdom is ready with help. Right now, that help is called Advent. We just need to say yes to the saving grace of this Church season. Last week we witnessed two sinners crucified next to Jesus. One could not accept that His savior was dying on a cross with him. It was perfectly logical point of view. The other confessed his sins and asked to be saved. That very day he was with Jesus in paradise. His heart was open to a savior in a moment that was so unlikely it defies worldly wisdom. And yet, that was the moment, believe it or not. I believe. I just thank God for the reminder to pay attention. Happy Advent! I pray that we all renew our commitment to look for Jesus so that we may find His grace.

The Gospel for Sunday, November 20th, 2016

The Gospel for November 20th, 2016: “The Crucifixion”

Luke 23: 35-43

Reflection: Avoidance of Suffering Misses the Point

As we celebrate the “Feast of Christ the King” on this last Sunday of Ordinary Time, we read from Luke’s gospel about the Crucifixion. I think it is worth noting that this is not a passage with Jesus as teacher; nor is it any scripture that refers to after the Resurrection where we see Christ ruling from Heaven. We know and celebrate Christ as our one true king because He died on the cross. His dominion over our minds, bodies, and hearts was purchased with His precious blood. As so it is appropriate that we reflect on this before beginning Advent where we renew our mission to return our minds, bodies, and hearts to His will in preparation for His coming.

This passage from Luke describes the reaction of three particular persons, or more precisely perspectives, to the Crucifixion, which I think illustrates the difficulty we have in accepting that to follow Him in this life is to suffer as He did. To accept Jesus as our eternal savior is to accept our crosses in this life that will empty our selfishness and surrender to faith in Him alone. It is to deny our innate desire to cling to sin and attempt to save ourselves.

The first of the three persons is the mocking observer, specifically named as rulers and soldiers in this gospel.  The rulers sneer at Him, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God” (35). The soldiers join in the uncompassionate mocking, jeering at Christ, “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself” (37). It has been my experience that we often mock to cover insecurity. Although it could be argued such comments were motivated by bloodlust or mob mentality, I see in their comments the need to suppress their consciences which are telling them this is wrong. They are crucifying their true king. They know in their references to Christ’s saving others that He is who He says, and that this crucifixion is the final sign to complete His message. What message? That to participate in the salvation He offers we must make ourselves meek, unselfish, and willing to suffer in this life. So they mask that knowledge in the logic that a king should be able to conquer his enemies with power and escape death. He should be able to escape suffering. Suffering can’t possibly be the way of salvation, right? And so they reject Him, a rejection marked by boasts and ridicule. They fail to join Him in His suffering to save our fellow humans. They fail to do as Mary does and simply offer love and acceptance of God’s will in this heart-wrenching moment in the theo-drama. Their physical lives are safe at this moment, but their souls are enthralled by sin.

The next character we see react is traditionally known as Gestas, the unrepentant thief who dies next to Jesus on his own cross. Unlike the mocking observers, death is near for him, and he is suffering great physical pain. So his reference to Jesus’s ability to save Himself from this horrific death is in the hope that Jesus will save him as well. His hope for a savior is completely self-serving and unaccepting of the idea that suffering for our sins can lead us closer to God’s justice and mercy. Though he asks Jesus for help, he fails to acknowledge his sinfulness, fails to believe that his King embraces suffering as penitence, and fails to follow Jesus faithfully at this critical moment and opportunity.

The final character we see is the repentant thief, traditionally known as Dismas. To Gestas, he responds, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal” (40-41). His acceptance of Christ’s innocence and his own guilt are the words of a repentant heart. And after this confession, he asks Jesus to save him not from suffering and death on a cross, but rather to save him from an eternal separation from Jesus. He asks, as we should ask, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (42). At the request of this humble, repentant, and faithful sinner, Jesus extends the same promise He promises to all of us, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (43).

If we deny ourselves and surrender to Him, we will be with him forever. It is the daily challenge of all humanity and requires us to remain faithful in the face of our own suffering and of those we care about. It prompts us to love others and bring them to Jesus, even though we selfishly would rather not for a whole slew of reasons that we know in the end are the signs of our sinfulness. We might try to deny this challenge by insecure mockery, or worse by persecuting others, as did the rulers and soldiers; we might ask to be saved out of desperation but still reject a savior who asks us to join him in suffering for his fallen children as Gestas did; or strengthened by prayer and sacraments and good works and yes, suffering, we might remain faithful in our pain, so that we might be with our king in paradise when our time on Earth has passed, as Dismas did. God bless Dismas. May he pray for us in Heaven to follow his example when our time comes.

The Gospel for Sunday, November 6th, 2016

The Gospel for November 6th, 2016: “The Question about the Resurrection”

Luke 20: 27-38

Reflection: What Will Heaven Be Like?

In reading today’s gospel, it occurred to me there a number of theological fine points being referenced that it would helpful to understand.  In particular, I wondered who exactly were the Sadducees, what were their beliefs, and what did they mean by the “resurrection?” I did a little searching to find those are some murky waters, since the Sadducees did not have a written theology; and what we know of them comes from other sources from the time period. It appears they were a rival Jewish sect, very conservative, with both the Pharisees and later the Christians. Furthermore, there is evidence they held some power in the management of the temple and in the Sanhedrin, the court of judges we know Jesus stood before on the night of His arrest. Finally, from the passage, we know they did not believe in the “resurrection,” although there is no clarification of what they meant. It is safe to assume they meant life after death for God’s people and not the resurrection of Jesus from His death on the cross, which was yet to come.

If I may start with that understanding and avoid wading into murkier theological waters, I think Jesus’s answer is pretty revealing about what we as Christians live in hope for. When they ask Him which brother the widow who was remarried to a family of brothers after each of his deaths will be married to when she passes on, Jesus answers:

The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die, for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise (34-36).

Despite the fact that this answer is given as a part of a scriptural debate about the truth of the resurrection, a life after death, it also provides we who believe in it a glimpse of its nature that I find quite encouraging. Jesus says we are no longer married to anyone in the afterlife. Why would that be? It is not because of the problems relating to polygamy brought up by the Sadducees. Rather I think it speaks to our call to holiness as God’s created children. We have been born into this world in sin, which divides us from the animating and ever-present love of our Creator. In His grace, we still know Him in life because His love is in each of us and because the Holy Spirit’s presence in our world amplifies His call to us to overcome our separation from Him in sin and rejoin Him in the pure joyfulness and glory of His everlasting love.

While we experience this love in small doses in loving our neighbor and in the sacraments, we alienate ourselves from that love in moments of sin, widening the spiritual gap between Christ and us. Marriage, as a sacrament, joins two people into one in Christ’s love, which has the potential to extend our walk toward holiness and rejection of sin. Any married couple knows how often we are called to be unselfish and put our partner’s and others’ needs before our own in marriage, especially in marriages blessed with children. But in the next life, we no longer need marriage when God’s grace has purified us to the point of holiness where we may be joined in His love directly. The separation caused by sin is gone. We are fully justified with the rest of His people and the angels in His love forever. The fact that this happens while we still maintain a unique consciousness as ourselves, so that we may enjoy eternal life in Him, is just one aspect of the absolute beauty and mystery of God’s grace. It is a state that marriage helps prepare us for in this life as two individuals work at remaining one in Christ’s love. This relationship only works when every decision is made with the unselfish love of Christ as the animating force. And it why it has the ability to purify us so that we may eventually be holy.

So even though I like other analogies of Heaven that speak to the ecstatic joy of eternal life: streets of gold, harmonious choirs, eternal rest, endless bounty (I love my parish priest’s joke that he hopes there will be low-calorie Snickers bars in Heaven. I also love the title of Rick Telander’s book for hoops junkies Heaven is a Playground); there is something in Jesus’s answer that I find even more reassuring. When I hear other analogies, I still think about the dark shadow sin casts on every ecstatic high we experience in this life we use to imagine life in Heaven. Despite a marriage I find truly rewarding, I still long for escape from its responsibilities at times. As a result, I sometimes become very selfish and give into all sorts of sins, large and small. I find this to be true of all my relationships with others, with my children, with my co-workers, with my extended family, with my friends and neighbors. They all enrich my life with God’s love, but sometimes I see the ties that bind us as a burden I do not want to shoulder. But in Jesus’s answer, we are reminded that relationships in Heaven are no longer marred by sin. Sin is gone because the gap it causes between us and God’s unselfish love has been closed and will not return. We will all be gathered up in Him no longer touched by sin–no more alliances and rivalries. I long for that day. I have hope for that day. And I pray that we all continue to open our hearts to our Savior so that all of humanity may be joined as a truly unified people in our Creator. I think all at once it will be both eternally joyful and peaceful.