The Gospel for Sunday, April 30th, 2017: Third Sunday of Easter

The Gospel for April 30th, 2017: “The Appearance on the Road to Emmaus”

Luke 24: 13-35

Reflection: Jesus is Near

“And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him” (15-16).

We are all on the road to Emmaus. We are all moving through life becoming distracted by the chaos our senses perceive, preventing us from recognizing our Savior is near. Our eyes, which are supposed to grant us vision, do not see what really matters because they are instruments of the temporal flesh. And so we draw the damaging conclusion that God is distant and choose sin in our despair.

This gospel reminds us that the victory and redemption of Christ’s resurrection is the truth and that he is indeed near if we trust our hearts instead of our eyes. He walks with us on life’s journey, on hand to provide all we need. Our faith and worship reveal His nearness.

Why doesn’t Jesus just grab us and shake us from our distraction? I think our free will ensures that we will choose to love Jesus and His creation–not out of forced duty, like slaves, but out of simple joy, like children. This can only be sensed through open and faithful hearts to the purely unselfish love of our Savior. We must choose to be conjoined with our God.

In a broken world this state does not come easily to us. However, the gospel tells us the one way the hold of our senses can be suppressed and our hearts warmed is by breaking bread with Jesus, as the disciples on the  road to Emmaus do. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we recognize He is near all along. Note the disciples’ words after their meal with Jesus: “Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” (32). They were. The disciples just needed the internal presence of the Eucharist to mortify their other senses that were distracting them from the fire of Jesus’ love in their hearts.

And so it is with us. The mass is central to our relationship with Jesus, our Savior. Let us celebrate often and know He is near.

The Gospel for Sunday, April 23rd 2017

The Gospel for April 23rd, 2017: “Appearance to the Disciples,” “Thomas,” and “Conclusion”

John 20: 19-31

Reflection: With Peace Comes a Mission

On this second Sunday of Easter, we read a gospel that is in three parts: “Appearance to the Disciples,” “Thomas,” and “Conclusion.” Since it tells of the return of Jesus to his apostles after the resurrection, it is a fitting reading for the second Sunday of Easter. Nevertheless, the three parts constitute three points of emphasis as we move forward in this Easter season sharing the glory of Christ’s victory. In the past I focused my attention on the second part, “Thomas,” which tells how Thomas doubted the reality of the risen Lord without seeing evidence firsthand. Jesus provides that evidence for Thomas, allowing him to put his fingers in the nail marks in Christ’s hands and the spear wound in the Lord’s side (27). Because I can relate to Thomas’ skepticism, Jesus’ blessing of “those who have not seen and have believed” has always resonated with me as an important lesson on the need for blind faith, as difficult as that is to accept (29).

Yet for today’s reflection I find myself drawn to the first part, “Appearance to the Disciples.” Why? In just the week that has passed since the liturgical crescendo of Holy Week, I have already fallen back into distraction. The concerns of daily life have caused me to fret and seek solace in worldly escapes such as junk food instead of in Jesus’ love. In short, I am afraid.  So I notice the state Jesus finds his disciples in during His visit with them. John tells us, “the doors were locked…for fear of the Jews” (19). Jesus calms their fears and brings them peace in His presence. It is assuring to hear this.

However, what happens next gives me pause: “[Jesus] said to them again,’ Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained’” (21-23). With the peace of Jesus and the Holy Spirit comes a mission to forgive. This passage is often cited to support the authority of a priest to absolve sins with the sacrament of reconciliation, and I do not dispute that claim at all. It is a gift of love that I wish our non-Catholic brothers and sisters could know.

However, as a lay person, I think Jesus is speaking to me with a similar mission of forgiveness. While it is not a sacrament, it is no lesson important a mission. As lay persons, we go out into the world and encounter people from all walks of life personally, secularly, and politically. These encounters inevitably lead to conflicts, large and small. How do we respond to those conflicts? Do we retreat and insulate ourselves in fear, as we find the apostles doing in the upper room? Do we respond in kind with anger, manipulation, and aggression? Or do we will the good of those who offend us and seek forgiveness and conciliation? I think the answer is clear in this passage. As lay persons blessed with the peace of the Holy Spirit, we must accept the mission that comes with Christ’s love to carry His mercy into our relations with others, both Christian and non-Christian. True, ours is not to absolve the sins of others as clergy do, but we are instrumental in spreading the gospel by loving our neighbors and our enemies as only Christ can. It is our vocation as spouses, parents, and workers to do so.

When I am struggling with selfishness and pride (as I do frequently), the principle from Church Father Origen, “Ubi divisio, ibi peccatum” or “Where there is division, there is sin,” sometimes pops into my head. I think it is a graceful reminder that we all share responsibility in healing the rifts that divide us. The body of Christ’s church will not be made whole by a unity that is only doctrinally or politically enforced, but rather in the simpler gathering of all His magnificent creation together in His unselfish love. Forgiveness and mercy are essential to that process and fundamental gifts for the salvation of humankind. If we seek forgiveness–no matter how long it may take—we are moving toward salvation.

The Gospel for April 16th, 2017: Easter Sunday

The Gospel for April 16th, 2107: “The Empty Tomb”

John 20: 1-9

Reflection: Our Inability to Imagine the Workings Of Jesus’ Salvation

There are three gospel readings prepared for Easter Sunday. I choose to respond to John’s account at the tomb of Jesus because I am interested in its featuring of Mary Magdalene’s distress at finding the tomb empty.  Her reaction is not to call to mind Jesus’ words that He must go before the disciples to the Father and to connect the empty tomb to the victory of Christ over death and sin. No. Despite Jesus’ efforts prepare His disciples that this is how the Messiah’s triumph would be achieved, Mary cannot imagine this in her limited human mind. Remember her faithfulness as she had followed Jesus to the cross and now returned to the tomb to remain close to her Savior. Nevertheless, when she finds the tomb empty, her panic and distress—not her joy—are evident. She says to Peter after racing to find him, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him” (2). Mary Magdalene is at one of those moments that is so common in our lives: we cannot understand how God could let this happen. We cannot imagine how this inexplicable turn of events could be God’s plan. Mary, to her credit, turns to Christian fellowship in this crisis. She turns to her Church where believers are gathered. She does not prematurely conclude as Nietzsche did that “God is dead.” However, the temptation must have been great for all of Jesus’ disciples at that moment to do just that. Where is the Messiah we believed in? He appears to have been defeated utterly. They are misreading the signs only because the workings of God’s will are beyond the limits of our human minds.

This interests me because I fear losing my faith. I fear being tricked by my mind and its ability through reason to conclude that all hope of our salvation is lost and God has abandoned us in moments I cannot understand. I see great horror and tragedy in the world; their logic and need I cannot fathom. In those moments I sometimes doubt God’s providence. I panic and distress similarly to Mary Magdalene at the tomb. Therefore I am comforted that Mary does abandon her faith and in patience finds the truth of Jesus’ love. Although not in this reading, Mary is soon visited by angels at the tomb, the site of her distress. They ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” (John 20: 13). As her failure to understand persists, she is then visited by Jesus himself who asks her the same question (John 20: 15). Finally, in the midst of her confusion, she recognizes Jesus and all is well.

So why was she weeping? Mary was weeping only because she could not imagine that Jesus would have to die on a criminal’s cross at the hands of non-believers and then rise from his tomb on the third day in order to save us. There is no cause for sorrow when we realize that this mystery is indeed God’s plan for salvation. And yet, her human mind failed to comprehend that as we all do in our most difficult trials. So I take heart in this story. I can forgive myself—as Jesus does—of my failure to rest on an unshakeable faith in seeming catastrophe. He helps my unbelief. Like Mary Magdalene, I will remember to wait out these moments of weeping, to be patient. Jesus is near; He is victorious over death and sin; we are saved; our hope for eternal life is justified. The truth of that eternal mystery is for the mind of God and not my own. St. Augustine said famously, “We are talking about God. What wonder is it that you do not understand? If you do understand, then it is not God.”

Our faith is known through our hearts, not our minds. Our minds are useful in God’s plan to communicate God’s love and glory to one another, but they are incapable of grasping the Creator’s divine inner workings. Our role in the theo-drama is not to direct—as Adam and Eve sought to do by eating from the tree of knowledge—but to act, trusting our director’s lead. We follow Jesus as sheep following a shepherd.  No matter what storms or attacks may scatter the flock, He will always find us and bring us back into His loving fold. Every one of these occasions is a cause for joy and peace.

Happy Easter!  Jesus lives!

The Gospel for Sunday, April 9th, 2017: Palm Sunday

The Gospel for April 9th, 2017: “The Betrayal by Judas”

Matthew 26: 14-27:66

Reflection: Lessons from Judas

As Palm Sunday inaugurates Holy Week, today’s gospel is Matthew’s version of the Passion. This selection coincides with my reading of Fulton Sheen’s brilliant meditation, Characters of the Passion. The book interprets the roles of Peter, Judas, Pilate, Herod, Claudia and Herodias, Barabbas, and Christ during the events of the Passion as archetypes for particular aspects of the struggle of all sinners to live Christian lives. As I recently read the chapter on Judas, I was struck by how much I resemble him in my ability to hide the darkness in my heart. It is a startling and unsettling revelation. Since Judas’s betrayal  is one  of the features of today’s gospel, I would like to share some lengthy excerpts from Sheen’s chapter on Judas so that readers may consider if they too have fallen trap to the temptations of pride that led to Judas’s demise.

All excerpted material below is in italics:

Have you ever heard of the expression “a fallen away?” It refers to those who, at one time blessed with grace and the Divine Intimacy, later abandon it. Our Lord referred to them in the parable of the Sower: “And they have no root in themselves, but are only for a time: and then when tribulation or persecution ariseth for the word, they are presently scandalized” (Mark 4:17).

[Judas] was the only Judean among the Apostles and since the Judeans were more skilled in administration than the Galileans, Judas was given the apostolic purse. Probably he was naturally best fitted for the task. To use a person for what he is naturally fitted is to keep him—if he can be kept—from apostasy and alienation and dissatisfaction. But at the same time, life’s temptations come often from that for which we have the greatest aptitude.

Judas had the right to the fatted calf, but he preferred the golden one….Judas was more zealous in the cause of the enemy than he was in the cause of the Our Lord. Those who leave the Church in like manner seek to atone for their uneasy consciences by attacking the Church. Since their consciences will not leave them alone, they will not leave the Guide of their consciences alone. The Voltaire who left the Church was the Voltaire who scoffed. Their hatred is not due to their unbelief, but their unbelief is due to their hatred. The Church makes them uneasy in their sin, and they feel that if they could drive the Church from the world they could sin with impunity.

No sooner was the crime done than Judas was disgusted….But it is not enough to be disgusted with sin. We must also be repentant. The Gospel tells us, “Judas, who betrayed Him, seeing that He was condemned, repenting himself….” (Matthew 27:3). But Judas did not repent in the true sense of the word. He had a change of feeling.

Judas repented but not to Our Lord: “he repented unto himself.” The latter is only self-hatred, and self-hatred is suicidal….

{Like Judas}[i]t is we, then, who know Him, who possess His Truth and His Life, who can injure Him more than those who know Him not. We may never act the traitor’s part in a big way, but through insignificant signs: like the kiss of Judas, by a silence when we should defend, by fear of ridicule when we should proclaim, by a criticism when we ought to witness, or by a shrug of the shoulders when we ought to fold our hands in prayer. Well indeed may the Savior then ask us, “Friend! Wilt thou betray the Son of Man with a kiss?”

…But [Judas] would repent unto himself, not to God….And the pity of it all was that he might have been Saint Judas. He possessed what every soul possesses—a tremendous potential for sanctity and peace. But let us be sure that whatever be our sins, and regardless of the depths of our betrayal, there is ever a Hand outstretched to embrace, a Face shining with the light of forgiveness, and a Divine Voice that speaks a word to us, as it did with Judas even unto the end: “Friend.”

While these excerpts lack the rich retelling of Judas’ role in the Passion from Sheen’s book, I hope they still provide a mirror similar to the one it has provided me. As I think of Judas, the archetypal sinner who hardens his heart to the Lord even in the very presence of his love, I see myself in all the times I betray Jesus with my interior thoughts and decisions , when on the outside I pretend to love Him with a false kiss. While  Sheen’s depiction of Judas unmasks me, the lesson is to not to continue the charade by thinking I can conquer sin on my own. On the contrary, the lesson for all of us sinners is to trust in Jesus for our repentance. Only His divine grace can help us overcome our weaknesses in the face of temptation. Judas’ demise was not in sinning alone, but rather in trying to save himself afterwards. I pray the Lord may grant me the humility of Mother Mary to avoid such a fate of foolish pride.

The Gospel for Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

The Gospel for April 2nd, 2017: “The Raising of Lazarus”

John 11: 1-45

Reflection: Does our Faith Lead to Hope?

The miracle Jesus performs by raising his friend Lazarus from the dead is more than a favor. This is the kind of literal reading that misses its significance entirely. Rather, it is an act that prefigures both Jesus’ own resurrection and, consequently, the salvation of believers from sin and death—the basis for our hope in eternal life. As such, it is a story that can be read to deepen our understanding of the connection between the virtues of faith and hope.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, faith is “the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself” (1814). In other words, if we believe Jesus is God Incarnate, we must choose to follow Him in this life according to the mandates of His word and His church.

On the other hand, hope is “the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (1817). In a sense, this is the additional belief that we will be rewarded for a faithful life with an eternal life of happiness with our Lord when we die. The upshot is we believe Jesus will save us as promised.

I provide these definitions of faith and hope because I think we can learn a lot about their connection from the way the other characters in the story react to Jesus’ action. Here’s what I mean. Jesus has no doubt He will save Lazarus either when He learns the man is ill (John 11: 3) or when He realizes Lazarus has died (14). He knows that this miracle will be performed according to His Father’s plan and timeline. This is why He follows the statement about Lazarus’ death with the comment: “And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe” (15). His point is the saving of Lazarus has a larger purpose in revealing God’s salvation plan that must not be derailed by selfish concerns.

The other characters, in contrast, have no knowledge of the larger plan; they only know Jesus has the divine ability to heal Lazarus in illness as He has healed others. When He does not do so, they think the opportunity has been missed. To represent the implications of this dissonance for faith and hope, let us consider the reactions of Martha, faithful disciple and sister of Lazarus, in this gospel.

When Jesus arrives in Bethany to tend to Lazarus, his friend had been lying dead in the tomb for four days. Martha goes to meet Jesus and has a puzzling conversation with Him that suggests both faith and disappointment. She tells Jesus if He had been there Lazarus would not be dead; she adds God will do whatever Jesus asks of Him; and she responds to Jesus’ answer that Lazarus will rise with, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day” (21-24). What is her state of mind here? I interpret her statements to mean she believes Jesus is the Messiah and that she is faithful to Him as Lord. And yet, she still thinks Lazarus’ life is lost for the time being, until the last day when the faithful are rewarded. Hence, she is still disappointed at Jesus’ late arrival and grief for her brother’s demise.

Jesus says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (25-26). Afterwards, Jesus repeats a similar conversation with Martha’s sister Mary. Finally Jesus goes to the tomb with Martha, Mary, and the other disciples. Despite his hints that Lazarus is not lost, the doubt that Jesus can do anything at this point is obvious. When He tells them to remove the stone, Martha says, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days” (39). In her view, Lazarus’ death places him beyond Jesus’ reach. As the story ends, it is clear to all God has power over death when Lazarus walks out of the tomb on Jesus’ command.

As I reflect on the comments of Martha and the others, I think about how it is possible to fully believe in Jesus’ teachings and God’s providence in this life, while still fearing death. Isn’t that really the source of the doubts of Martha and the others? In that limitation lays the distinction between faith and hope. We can believe temporarily believe in the righteous of God’s teaching and justice as a guide and source providence in our lives, while still clinging to that same life in fear of losing it. However, such faith is not sustainable without the promise of victory over sin and death. Jesus came to give us eternal life with the Father. This is a life without sin. A life of happiness with boundless peace and joy that should be welcomed and anticipated. It is the reason we should live with joyful hope and the reason to accept faithful lives following Christ.

This gospel raises an important question for our faith: Do we, in spite of our faith, still fear and regret death like Martha and Mary? Or do we have hope that the Resurrection we celebrate this coming Easter means we really have nothing to fear as Christian disciples? Now I’m not saying that we don’t still feel grief when loved ones pass or are confronted by the horror of tragic deaths of our brothers and sisters at the hands of violence and hatred. We should acknowledge the pain of loss we feel and strive to help others through their suffering whenever death touches us. And it is alright to admit it hurts. Yet, we must also embrace the hope that death means the passing from a fallen world into God’s hands. Whether through the cleansing of purgatory or through a joyful union in heaven, this really is a better place, where the dead can rest in peace from the scarring of a fallen world. I know some will say what about the possibility of Hell? That is a discussion of another time and place. However, I would just end with how much that reminds of the doubt of Martha when Jesus opened Lazarus’ tomb after four days. She underestimates Jesus’ power to save her brother. He is our savior who came to save all in His victory over death. I don’t know how He will do that. But Jesus does. Easter gives us cause for a glorious hope. No longer need we be afraid. Jesus saves!