CORPUS CHRISTI, 2019

John, do you take Mary, here present, to be your lawful wife…? I do.

Mary, do you take John, here present, to be your lawful husband…? I do.

They are holding hands, drawing each other to themselves as they say the key word, “take,” and they pledge mutual love and faithful union through an unforeseeable future.

Jesus made the same pledge to us, his followers, when he said over the bread, “This is my body…take and eat from it; this is the cup of my blood…take and drink from it.”

What he said is related to the vows that married couples make to each other, but, I would suggest, not to be taken literally, in a physical sense. They refer rather to the person of Jesus — and to the loving, caring, sharing, giving, reassuring, sacrificing, accepting that belong to a life-exchanging relationship.

That’s what Eucharist is about: a union of life and love. Surely you’ve noticed that persons who are very close to each other over a long period of time take on one another’s characteristics. As I have heard it said so often, “Live with another person long enough, and you begin to look and act like them.”

It’s true, and that’s what is happening to you and me as we live with Jesus through the Eucharist.

I’ve chosen to remind you here again of the brilliant article written by the late Monsignor Gerald Martin in America Magazine some 20 years ago, the most enlightening words that I have ever read on the topic of Eucharist. He wrote: “Jesus did not institute the Eucharist to change bread and wine into his body and blood, but to change us into his body.” Here are quotes from Father Martin:

The Mass is not meant to transform elements, but to transform people. When Jesus said, “Behold, I am with you always until the end of the world, he was not referring to his real presence in the sacrament of Eucharist: he was referring to his real presence in his people, in you and me, the members of his mystical body on earth.

Jesus said, “Do this in memory of me…” What did this refer to? Did Jesus mean “Say these words, use these elements and these gestures in memory of me?” Father Martin answered, by no means.

Jesus had said, “This is my body that is given up for you. This is the cup of my blood which is poured out for you.” “Do this in memory of me” means “In memory of me you should imitate my self-giving which is represented in these symbols of bread broken and wine poured out. When you take and eat, you enter into this action and commit yourself to imitate my self-giving in your own life.”

We should desire, expect, and anticipate just such a transformation in our own life. That’s the meaning of Eucharist.

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TRINITY SUNDAY 2019

Our understanding of the Trinity can run from the literal – a Father and a Son in our form, a Spirit in the form of a dove — to the metaphorical or symbolic.

So, I suggest that a good working definition of Trinity can be put in this way: Trinity is our Christian way of saying that in the profound mystery of the Creative Spirit that we call God there are the roots of the relatedness that we and all of creation are made to exist in.

Let’s try that again: Science and religion tell us that nothing in this universe exists in total isolation from everything or everyone else. All beings, whether animate or inanimate, are in relationship with other creatures. Not even a particle of matter or a charge of energy has its being apart from others. It is a law of the universe that has no exception.

Trinity is the faith statement that expresses our conviction that this law of inevitable relatedness is no accident of nature, but rather has its origin in the very nature of the Creator. In human terms, then, we say that in God there are love, compassion, dialog, sharing and all else that has to do with mutually life-giving relationship. We are relational because our Creator is relational.

But there’s a hitch here: inanimate objects have no choice but to be in relationship; animals other than human are programmed by instincts. But we humans alone can choose to be relaters or not. It seems to me that that is the summons of this major feast we are celebrating: that we examine the relationships of our life and resolve to make in them the changes that we know ought to be made – our relationship to other persons, beginning with those with whom we are most closely bound and extending to those millions we do not know; our relationship with the earth and its non-human inhabitants; our relationship with Jesus, in whom we have the fullest possible revelation of God.

A Jesuit friend of mine years ago sent me a piece, probably from a Midwest newspaper, written by a man named Joe Klock, Sr. It begins with the acknowledgement that there isn’t much we can do about the really major issues of our day: international wars, poverty, greed, injustice, cruelty, and so on. However, he goes on to say, random acts of kindness on our part would likely be a helpful form of global warming. And then he lists some possible starters, among them —

*Yield the right of way to another driver for no good reason.
*Wave to neighbors you don’t really know.
*Send a note or e-mail to a long-ago acquaintance with whom you’ve been out of touch. “Just thinking of you”, he said, will do for the message.
*Turn off the TV and just listen to one of your kids for a half-hour.
*Send someone who lives alone a small gift – anonymously.
*Hold a door for someone (anyone will do).
*Help a co-worker with an unpleasant chore.
*Concede a minor point to another person if it will make that person feel better.

Mr. Klock says that we’ll seldom know when our small kindnesses pay big dividends, but they do. But, he asks, that’s not really important, is it? Do at least one nice and unnecessary thing every day – preferably something for which you’ll get no credit and of which you’re unlikely to know the results — except for these two – both guaranteed: 1) you’ll feel good about yourself, and 2) you’ll make the world – your world, at least – a little better than it was.

So, what’s all this got to do with the Trinity?? Everything! Think about it…

PENTECOST, 2019

I haven’t done a survey, but I would think that fewer & fewer Catholics today would hold that in those words about forgiving sins Jesus was talking to priests and establishing the Sacrament of Penance, or Confession, as some still call it. I believe he was not. He was speaking to the community of his faithful followers and he seems rather to be saying that forgiveness is more than a juridical act, a removal of the charges against an accused or guilty person. Even after being acquitted by the court, the defendant may not feel the healing effect of personal forgiveness.

What I hear Jesus saying in today’s Gospel passage is that we are given an awesome power over each other, the power to make each other feel whole and good and worthwhile and accepted and valued and loved – even after we’ve done something terribly wrong and shameful and are repenting in misery. Jesus seems to be implying that God heals us through each other. That’s the meaning of his words, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

In a way, we might say that God is limited by what we are willing to do. So, if someone you’ve offended refuses to grant you total, unconditional forgiveness, you don’t get it! You remain unhealed, unhappy, and sick in spirit. God in each of us can reach others only in so far as we make that possible.

Therefore, if we are willing to be generous life-givers to each other, we find that we have far more to offer than merely our own human resources: we recognize that we are also instruments of God’s own power of love and wisdom – love that soothes and heals, wisdom that guides and directs. We are channels of God’s power, which far exceeds our human limitations.

A spiritual person is one who lives his or her life always conscious of that divine presence, constantly trying to collaborate with its power and direction.

I am convinced that we have interpreted much too narrowly the relationship between the Spirit of God and us Christians. Just consider these three major aspects of our Christian faith and practice: 1) this Feast of Pentecost, which we are celebrating today and which is recounted in the bible with so much rich symbolism; 2) our traditional devotion to the Holy Spirit; and 3) our one-time reception of the sacrament of Confirmation –these certainly can lead us to believe that we Christians have been given by God an exclusive privilege denied to 9/10ths of the people of the world. That can’t be true. We are all creatures of the same loving God, whose Spirit acts in all who allow her to. From religion to religion we name that God differently, but, as the Scripture readings for today emphasize, it is the same Spirit in each and all of us.

I believe it is true that more wars have been fought over religion than over all other causes. We continue to see religious wars in our own lifetime – bloody ones in the Middle East, acrimonious ones here in our own country. When will they stop once and for all? Only when mercy triumphs over vengeance, when love conquers hatred, when we look at the stranger with eager anticipation instead of resentment and fear, when our first response to offense is forgiveness. We Christians can help by recognizing that Pentecost is our name for a phenomenon that is as old as creation itself: God acting everywhere in God’s beloved universe and in everyone who is willing.

Let’s start again, right where we live, no matter how small the step.

Happy Pentecost to all!

7TH SUNDAY OF EASTER 2019

As I read over and over again the three readings assigned for this 7th Sunday in Easter, what stood out for me was how convinced Jesus seemed to be that he had knowledge of God that he felt compelled to share with everyone he could reach. I am very wary of preachers who tell us what God says and what God means; that appears to me to be the height of arrogance. Who can comprehend the infinite mind of the Creator? It is presumptuous for anyone to claim such a thing. But coming from Jesus, the message sounds different; we are convinced it is authentic. Even many who do not view Jesus as savior recognize the validity of his teachings. They seem self-authenticating, too real, too genuine, not to be true.

We celebrated only three days ago what has traditionally been called the Ascension of Jesus, a term that implies an upward movement of his physical body after his death and resurrection, a skyward journey to a heaven presumed to be up above the clouds. Fundamentalists and literalists accept that biblical story according to the surface meaning of its words. The more open-minded among us understand that the story is a figure of speech, not to be taken literally but as the carrier of an underlying message.

The message is that we who have heard and accepted Jesus as the ultimate life-giver are called, not only to believe, but to imitate! We are to carry on what he began, a ministry of love, healing, forgiveness, and peacemaking. We are to do that, not depending solely on our own limited human resources, but on the Spirit whom he would share with us always. His “ascension,” even though it may not have been the physical lifting of his living body skyward, implies that he is with God the Creator in a union of the most intense love and that we are here to be Christ to others by allowing the Spirit to work through us.

There are many Catholics, I know, who think that they are fulfilling their religious obligation by being faithful to worship. But they are mistaken. Jesus made that judgment, not I, when he warned us about being the sort of persons who cry out, “Lord, Lord!” instead of doing the will of the one he called Father. And the will of God for us is not obscure or inscrutable; it is that we follow the example of Jesus in all things, especially in our relationships with others.

The easy part is Mass on Sunday; the far more difficult part is the discipline, the self-control, the courage, the humility to speak and act with others in a Christ-like manner. It’s so much less demanding to go on with our selfish, abusive, devil-may-care attitudes and actions, pretending that they are acceptable: “Hey, that’s the way I am. Take it or leave it.”

But the easy part, the participation at Mass on a regular basis, is what provides the inspiration and the energy for us to change, to be better than we are, to be far happier and more at peace, to make so much happier especially those we love and are most closely bonded to.

I don’t know about you, but there are two points in the Mass that offer me the best opportunity to express that hope and that intention. The first is just before the Gospel is proclaimed, when we make the sign of the cross on our foreheads, our lips, and over our hearts, the meaning being, Lord, help me to accept the direction of Jesus in everything I think, everything I say, and everything I feel, especially love and compassion and forgiveness. The other is at Communion time, after we have received the sacramental presence of Christ, when my prayer is that, in whatever I am doing or saying that day and beyond, the love of Christ will come through me.

When we get around to making such personal decisions concerning our lives as Christians, religion finally becomes genuine spirituality.

The Ascension by Giotto

FEAST OF THE ASCENSION OF JESUS, 2019

What is written in the bible about the feast we are celebrating today is significant for one among several particular reasons: Of the four gospel authors (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and St. Paul, out of those five, Luke is the only one who has left us with a chronological theology, a step-by-step account of the events of Jesus life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Nowhere else in the bible will you find the supposed “facts” that he offers. John bunches up the resurrection of Jesus, his ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples all in one brief day. Mark and Matthew make no mention of an ascension; they tell only of Jesus’ resurrection. And Paul, the first New Testament writer – before Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — treats the two events, resurrection and ascension, as if they were one and the same.

So, we’re not going to get much in the way of factual reliability from those five! And yet, who cares about a little discrepancy here & there? Like a good spice, it makes the story all the tastier!

It is the meaning of what is passed on that is the important thing, not the historical accuracy of it. These scriptures are not history books; they are not biographies; they are rather primitive faith documents. They are the joyful proclamations of a people who had come to know and believe in Jesus as the way to life, and they used every device at their disposal to make that story heard and loved by all.

But there’s a message in these ascension accounts and references that we must not miss: that we who have heard and accepted Jesus as the ultimate life-giver, the very word of God, are called, not only to believe, but to imitate! We are to carry on what he began, a ministry of love, healing, forgiveness, and peacemaking. We are to do that, not depending on our limited human resources alone, but on the Spirit whom he would share with us always. His “ascension,” even though it may not have been the physical lifting of his living body skyward, implies that he is with God in a total union of the most intense love and that we are here to be Christ to others by allowing the Spirit to work through us, as Jesus allowed the Spirit to work through him.

That’s the only “ascension” fact worth knowing!

6TH SUNDAY OF EASTER, 2019

It has to be that it is far less from movie screens and romantic novels that we learn what true love is than from the lifelong devotion of good parents, faithful spouses, and loyal friends. Real love has a lot to do with giving — giving one’s self, one’s things, one’s time. The person who genuinely loves asks in return only the other person’s trust, affection and joy. Complete love is a productive communication in which people grow through a strong union of hearts.

I received a message only last week from a man in which he mentioned that he and his wife had just celebrated their wedding anniversary after several decades of marriage. I quote him exactly now: “How lucky are we to still enjoy spending time together. We both feel blessed.”

It isn’t that way with everyone, I know. The marriage I came from was not so blessed. The disease of my father’s alcoholism made a consistently peaceful, happy union impossible. How often I’ve asked myself, since he and my mother went home to God a long time ago, whether they loved each other, and the answer always came back, Yes, they did. As tortured as it was, we, their four children, were the recipients of that deep, generous and unfailing love.

I learned in that life experience that love is tested most sorely when it persists through doubt and hurt and loneliness and fear. It proves its mettle by courageously enduring harsh and uncongenial times.

However, I am not suggesting that every marriage must be maintained despite the unhappiness it causes for both the couple and all whom it touches: separation or divorce is sometimes unfortunately necessary, especially after periods of intense therapy and prayer. But that must be regarded as a last resort and in the hopeful expectation that it will bring a measure of peace and happiness to all involved. I have very often seen exactly that happen.

A 6-minute Sunday homily can hardly be a scholarly treatise on the all-important topic of human love; however, we can use it for a modest collection of biblical “wisdom statements” alerting us to the essentials of love.

* First, I believe, has to be St. John’s immortal definition of the mystery of mysteries that we so glibly call God: “God is love, and whoever lives in love lives in God.”

God’s love does not choose only the deserving: in the Acts of the Apostles we discover that the Jews were surprised that “the gift of the Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles as well”.

* Love happens when our decisions are one with God’s will: Jesus assures us that we live in his love when we keep his commandments.

* Love is joy: The Lord continues, “I tell you all this so that my joy may be yours and your joy may be complete.”

* Love is expressed most completely in intentional, personal sacrifice. Jesus says of himself, “There is no greater love than this, that one should lay down one’s own life for the sake of others.”

Love at its most intimate is being welcomed into another’s mind. “I call you friends”, Jesus said, “because I have made known to you all that I have heard from my Father.”

We have all our lives to learn to love. We cannot allow ourselves to become discouraged or overly impatient; but neither can we afford to become complacently satisfied.

And so we pray, simply and sincerely, Come Holy Spirit, come!

5TH SUNDAY OF EASTER, 2019

In one of the many retreats I’ve given over the past decades, I sneaked into the conference room in the wee hours of the night and stretched a cord from one wall to its opposite. And then I hung a cross on it as close to the wall on the far end as I could possibly put it.

When the retreatants came back after breakfast the next morning, I explained: the cord represents the life span of the universe from its beginning (which now is thought to be over 13 billion years ago) to the present time. The long segment of the cord from the wall to which it is attached to the hanging cross at the other end stands for the span of time from the beginning of the universe to Jesus’ day. The tiny, almost invisible, length of cord on the other side of the cross is the 2000 years of the church’s existence here on earth.

Think of the contrast involved there: thirteen-plus billion years of time before the emergence of Jesus Christ — and then just a finger snap of time between Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and this very moment!

How young we are as a community of faith! Have we even succeeded in leaving our infancy behind? We’ve walked with Christ so short a time and yet can be so arrogant as to assume that we know “God’s will” in virtually all matters. Amazing — and, in a way, amusing!

It’s the rare Christian, I would think, who does not entertain doubts about the meaning of life and death as we all have have learned it in our Jewish-Christian tradition. No one should feel guilty because he or she has wondered, “What if it all just ends in permanent death, in total disappearance, annihilation?”

Faith, after all is the basis of our hope for eternal life, and faith is not knowledge like the knowledge I had that I was pecking away at keys when I composed these words. We may sometimes resemble the apostle Thomas, who found it impossible to believe, to give assent to what he was told was truth, without first seeing incontrovertible proof.

It’s acceptable, perfectly understandable, for the Christian to move on, experiencing both reassuring faith and disturbing doubts along an often dark and confusing journey.

Enormous questions about life face us Catholics and all people of good will today. It would be a tragic mistake, the very height of arrogance, if we Catholics were to insist that we have all the answers, given to us by church authority that can, when needed, invoke the gift of infallibility. Our trust should be placed, not in every conclusion we have arrived at to date, but rather in the Christ who accompanies us always and in the Spirit who speaks to us in many voices, sometimes strange and even unappealing.

Our search for truth must include all cultures, all traditions, all persons of good will and sincerity. It is not important that we be infallible; but it is essential that we be humble and entirely open to the revelation of God’s truth in all its manifestations.

We Catholics may be destined to be relatively small in number, yet we are called to be the yeast that interacts with all the other ingredients in the world’s great mix, lifting it to be ever closer to the source of truth and life.