Sunday, November 23, 2014

Christ the King

On the last Sunday of the Church year we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. Pope Pius XI initiated this feast in 1925 to combat what he perceived as a growing nationalism and secularism. He thought it was high time that we remembered that Jesus Christ gets our highest allegiance. Not our country, not any earthly entity, but only Christ. He had high hopes for what we are supposed to learn from this feast. In the letter he wrote establishing the feast he said:

His Holiness, Pope Pius XI
"The faithful, moreover, by meditating upon these truths, will gain much strength and courage, enabling them to form their lives after the true Christian ideal. If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God."

This lengthy quote from Pius XI makes clear what is at stake in this cosmic battle. We have been purchased by the blood of Christ and so everything we are is subject to his dominion. He has authority over everything: over our minds, our wills, our hearts, and our bodies. Our friend Pius is talking about a lofty calling, but it's not really Pius doing the calling, it's God, and Pius is just reminding us of it. God has claimed us, has won eternal life for us, and so it is quite right to call him the King of the Universe.

But we, partially as free Americans but more as sinful humans, don't want to give God everything. If we're talking about our minds, wills, hearts, and bodies, then we'll give God bits and pieces of each, maybe quiet a lot, but we're scared to death to give him everything. If I give everything to God, what's left that's mine? The answer? Everything. When I look at this creature that is myself and everything about me, I have to acknowledge that I am not the source of anything there is. My mind, my heart, my body, I didn't make any of this. God did. Even the things I do, the things I have accomplished in life, God is the source of that too, and he wants to rule over it all. But he doesn't rule in an authoritarian manner, but rather as the one who knows what I need even before I ask, and so I work each day to hand myself back to him.

And there are eternal implications to this daily work of handing myself back to God. This gospel deals with eternal implications, because it forces us to look at heaven and hell. The King of all creation tells us that he is not found on a lofty throne, but rather in the poor, the sick and the imprisoned. Now, there's a negative way and a positive way to look at this gospel. Viewed negatively, we could talk about how if you don't feed the hungry, visit the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, or visit the imprisoned, you will go to hell. That's true, we have it straight from the mouth of the Son of Man. Jesus said to those who ignored the poor, "Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." Those are frightening words, but they are the words of Jesus to those who ignored the poor. So we could take this gospel as a warning not to do what those accursed did, and we would probably make it to heaven. But if we stop there, if we take this gospel only as a warning, then we've missed the beautiful opportunity, the invitation, that Jesus presents here.

And the invitation is this: anytime you feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the ill, or visit the imprisoned, you get to feed, welcome, clothe, or care for Jesus himself. You get to meet Jesus there! Is there any better opportunity? If I told you that after Mass, Jesus was going to be at the cafe down the street for lunch, I bet I know where you'd be for lunch. I bet you'd pick up the tab too. We want to meet Jesus. Well here in this gospel, Jesus doesn't say, "If you feed the hungry, I'll think that's a really nice thing and I'll reward you for it," No, Jesus says, "Whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me." You truly minister to Jesus when you minister to the poor.

Our Lord Jesus Christ the King
But then if I told you that Jesus would be outside after Mass, shamelessly trying to get money for a meal or a bus ticket, what would you do? What if he had alcohol on his breath or needle marks in his arm? Would you feed him then? Can you say that that's not Jesus? What if you know him to be a guy who abuses the welfare system? Would you feed him then? Let's take it further. What if he's poor by his own fault, maybe he gambled away everything he had. What if he's in fact passed out drunk? Can I say that's not Jesus? What if he's here illegally? Is he not Jesus just because he's not a citizen? Because I'm looking in this gospel here for some sort of caveat or condition, something from Jesus to suggest that I only need to feed and care for the nice poor people and not the dirty ones, not the sick ones, because they're not really Jesus. I'm looking for something to let me off the hook, and I can't find it. Jesus put no conditions on who we have to care for, on whether they were nice or easy to care for them, he just said if you feed them, you feed me, and then you will inherit the kingdom prepared for you.

This is probably not an easy message for any of us to hear, so I want you to hear carefully what I'm saying and what I'm not saying. I am not dealing with any of the ways we like to complicate helping the poor where we tell ourselves, "Well, if I give this guy money he's just going to waste it on alcohol and that's not actually helping him." Sometimes that's legitimate but often it's an excuse to not help. I'm not dealing with that concern, I just want you to hear the hard words of Jesus and take them seriously, because eternal destinies are at play. I'm also not condemning anybody here for the way you may have treated the poor in the past, because as I prepared this homily I felt quite convicted and I had to pray about a lot of times when I ignored Jesus in the poor.

The invitation that Jesus extends to those who loved the poor, and the curse he has for those who ignored the poor, are important words we all need to hear carefully on this Solemnity of Christ the King, because the only throne our King has on this earth is in fact the Cross. That throne endures to this day in the lives of all of our suffering brothers and sisters. If we ignore that throne, we ignore God, but if we worship at that throne by serving Christ present in the suffering, then we to will hear that beautiful invitation, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Taking a Risk with God

Our readings from this time of year want us to be thinking about the end times, about the end of the world and the second coming of Christ.  This gospel is no different. While we usually think about this gospel in terms of not wasting our God-given talents and using them for good, the real purpose of Jesus's parable is revealed in the line "Come, share your master's joy." Jesus wants us to understand that he's talking about heaven and hell. Another way of translating that phrase would be "Enter into the joy of your master." And the Greek word for joy, "xara," or the Latin word, "gaudium," don't imply just happiness, "come be happy with your master," but they point to a joy that originates from the deepest level of the heart. So clearly this isn't a normal  master-servant relationship. Since this is a strange way to be talking, there's something we should be picking up on.

If Jesus isn't describing this master like a normal rich man, then we're not meant to understand him that way. If Jesus is describing this master so strangely, so compassionately, then we're meant to understand this master as an analogy for God our Father.  It's worth noting that biblical scholars don't actually know how much money a talent was, but they agree it was a huge sum of money. One scholar I read suggested it was about a year's worth of wages. So, one talent is a lot of money, but two or five? That's an incredible amount of money, so then for this master to just be handing it out to his servants while he's away is something else. This master is crazy generous, even unreasonably generous, but he's also demanding, harvesting where he did not plant and gathering where he did not scatter. This master is not a pushover.

So we need to talk about risk in the Christian life, because this master, our God and Father, is apparently one for risks. In this parable, there was a risk when he gave his servants this money while he was away. And I don't think he was ignorant about his good or lazy servants. If he was ignorant of their personalities he would have given them all the same amount. He knew what he was doing, and he knew that his risk may not pay off. Yet he passed this money out anyway.

Throughout Jesus' parables, we see people acting unreasonably and being kinder than they should. In the parable of the sower,  the sower took a risk by throwing his seed among rocks and weeds and hard ground. The man who left the 99 sheep to look for the one took a huge risk by leaving the 99 alone for the sake of the one. And the father of the prodigal son risked never seeing his son again when he gave his son the inheritance and letting him leave. But instead he got back a son who learned the depth of his father's love.

Love naturally takes risks, love can't help but go out on a limb. Every man who has ever gotten down on one knee to propose to the one he loves understands the risks that love causes you to take. And God our Father is no different. Throughout his parables, Jesus tried to explain to us what the Father was willing to risk to win us back. But then through his own Passion and Death, Jesus proved exactly what the Father was willing to risk. Our Father was willing to allow his only Son to destroy death, to be beaten, crucified, and killed, and to be raised again, so that maybe, just maybe, you might accept his invitation to eternal life. There has been no greater gamble in all the world.

How do we respond to this risk, this gamble, this invitation? We have to try to respond in kind, even though we can never adequately respond to this gift of love the Father has given us. God has taken huge risks in loving us and so in order to love him in return we have to ask where he is calling us to take some risks. Because if we return to our parable, then we can see that there were risks on both sides. The master took risks in passing out these talents, but then two of the three servants took risks too in the way they invested them. One didn't. One servant played it safe, buried the talent out of fear, and sheepishly tried to give it back with a pitiful excuse about how demanding the master was. For that, the master called him wicked and lazy, and had him cast into the darkness outside, all because he let his fear get the better of him and wouldn't take a risk.

But the two who did risk, the two who were able to give the master a return on his generosity, they received that incredible reward. They received that generous offer of the master to "come, share your master's joy." That's what happens when we take risks in our relationship with God, when we move beyond the realm of what is safe and what is comfortable and move into the realm of the unknown and the uncomfortable.

I can guarantee that God is inviting each and every one of you to take some risks with him. Now, the way God wants each of us to take risks with him will be sort of the same for each of us, but it'll also be sort of different. It'll be sort of the same because the fundamental risk that God wants us to take is to love him more. That's it. Just step out on that limb and love him, trust him, a little bit more today than you did yesterday.

So that's the "common risk," if you will. Love God more. That's how God wants all of us to risk and make ourselves vulnerable to him in the same way. But then, the repercussions of this love will be different for each of us. So for you specifically, what sort of risks is God asking you to take with him? Where is he calling you to give up some of your own control and put things into his hands? If you do step up and ask the Lord where he wants you to risk more in your relationship with him, the answer won't be what you think, it won't be what you expect, and it certainly won't be what you want. Maybe he's asking you to tithe more. Maybe he wants you to speak his name more boldly to this culture, perhaps at work or at school. Maybe he's inviting you back to Confession. Maybe there's a situation in your life he wants you to stop worrying about and hand over to him. I can only make suggestions, whatever particular risk Jesus wants you to take with him will be very personal.

But here's the thing about taking risks with God. It only feels like a risk from our perspective, but in reality, God always has your back. There is no surer bet in the world than to bet on God, to surrender your control and let him have it. God will never let you down. If you move from where you're at today and move into a deeper relationship with him, he will support you all the way. So ask God that question, ask him where he wants you to risk a little bit more in your relationship with him. Ask him, and then don't be afraid of the answer, and know that he's got your back the whole way.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Dedication of the Lateran

Today we are celebrating the feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. The Lateran Basilica is Rome's cathedral church, so we celebrate it every year as a sign of our unity with the pope. This is one of those feasts that just make me love being Catholic, because it's seems so random and so far removed from our daily lives, yet here we are honoring a building built a long time ago on the other side of the world. So the full name of the Lateran Basilica is the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour and Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist at the Lateran. Don't worry, there's not going to be a quiz later. That name is a mouthful, so we just say the Lateran Basilica. A basilica was the name for Roman meeting halls, and as we converted them into churches we now give the title basilica to particular large and important churches. The Lateran Basilica is the Cathedral of Rome, it is the Pope's church. St. Peter's Basilica gets a lot of attention because it's where the Pope actually lives and it's built over the site of St. Peter's tomb, but the Lateran Basilica is actually the head church of Rome, and therefore the world. Why? I want to give you the basic history so you can understand why we have this feast on our calendar, then we need to think about what this feast means for us.

So first the history. Roman Empire, early 300s. Christianity is has been illegal, but growing. The emperor Diocletian is convinced that Christians are the source of all his troubles, so he makes it his stated goal to eradicate Christianity from the face of the earth. Things are not good for the Church. But Diocletian gets sick, retires, and eventually passes away.  Constantine, one of his closest aids, becomes emperor. Constantine makes Christianity legal, and gives the Lateran Palace to the Bishop of Rome. Constantine's got lots of palaces, so he's not hurting because of this gift. The bishop converts the main meeting hall of this palace into a huge church, and this church came to be known as the Lateran Basilica. This basilica and palace were then the home of the pope, the bishop of Rome, for a thousand years.

The nave of the Basilica
We honor this basilica today because it is the head church of the head diocese of the whole world, and so it represents our unity as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. The unity of the Church is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit who dwells among us, but it also takes work on our part to make sure we stay within this unified Church established by Jesus. The divisions we see among the various Christian denominations are a scandal to the world, and they are the result of tragic failures on our part throughout history. But as Christian denominations divide and multiply, which one holds steady? Which denomination, despite conflict within and persecutions without, despite being populated by the greatest saints and the most terrible sinners, has survived through the ages? Where has the center held while the rest of the world spins out of control? The center has held with Jesus' best friend, Peter, the first pope, and the 265 men who have sat in his place and caused the Church to spread, all the way from a backwater Galilean fishing village here to our own town. That's why we honor this basilica, because it represents our unity.

St. Paul in our second reading was talking about the importance of unity. His words are just as relevant two thousand years ago as they are today. He wrote to the Corinthians "You are God's building," and then he goes on to say "According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid the foundation and another is building upon it." Paul's basic work in his various journeys was to establish a church, these communities of Christians, but then he only hung around long enough to make sure it was firmly established, then he entrusted it to other leaders. That's why he said "I laid the foundation but someone else is building upon it." Paul wants us to recognize that we did not establish this Church. Lots of people made huge sacrifices to build this church building, but even they did not build the Church. Jesus Christ himself established this Church.

The apse of the Basilica
But Paul isn't done with us yet, his bigger lesson is yet to come. Next he says "Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?" He is still addressing the community, not individuals, so you the community of believers are the temple of God. The Spirit dwells in your midst. That's the teaching, now comes the warning. "If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person." That is a word of warning to each one of us. Unity is an essential characteristic of Christ's Church, Jesus prayed at the Last Supper that we may all be one as he and his Father are one. If we destroy God's temple by causing disunity, then we have been warned by Paul that God would destroy us. This should cause each of us to reflect: do I enjoy gossiping about other people, especially other members of my church? Do I harbor hatred or resentment for other members of my parish because of things that have happened in the past? How often do I justify my anger, claiming that it's my right to hold onto these feelings because of what has been done to me? Do I wait for the other person to make the first move before I dare forgive them?

Paul gives a stern warning to those who would destroy God's holy people by causing disunity, and it's phrased in the negative. But if we only focus on the mean old Paul who says God will destroy so-and-so, or if we we only focus on the mean old Jesus who was so intolerant of the money changers, then we've missed the point. The positive side of the coin is that God values the integrity of his Church, he values our unity. God knows that we need this community to walk with him. We need to be surrounded by our fellow Christians in union with our bishop and our pope if we want the Holy Spirit to dwell with us. God loves unity, and so Paul gives a warning to those who would threaten it. Today as we honor the head church of all Christendom, we pray for the gift of unity both in our own parish and in the Universal Church.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Just a Photo

Also worth noting from yesterday's, we wore black instead of white or purple. It's the one day of the liturgical year where black is listed as an option (although black is still permissible at funeral masses). The new black vestments arrived just in the nick of time (Friday) for Sunday's celebration of All Souls.
Requiescant in pace

Sunday, November 2, 2014

De Purgatorio

First Reading: 2 Maccabees 12:43-46 He acted in an excellent and noble way as he had the resurrection of the dead in view.
2nd Reading: 1 John 3:1-2 We shall see him as he is.
Gospel: Luke 7:11-17 Young man, I tell you, arise!

Today we celebrate the feast of All Soul's Day. This feast follows right on the heels of yesterday's feast: the feast of All Saints. All Saint's Day remembers and celebrates all those who have made it, all those who are now in heaven, worshiping God day and night. Today, All Soul's Day, we remember all those who have passed from this life, but maybe haven't quiet made it to Heaven yet. So it's kind of a somber day. The ordinary position of the Christian is one of joy, and while we never let go of that joy, at certain times we highlight other realities of the Christian life. So this is a good day to think about death and mortality, and what happens afterwards. It's a good day to think about Heaven, and the sins that keep us from Heaven.

Today you could pick any readings from Masses for the Dead, so I hand picked these readings to try and get is thinking about death and resurrection. If we look at the gospel we just heard, death and resurrection are obvious, but we've heard these dusty old stories so many times, we run the danger of becoming used to them. We stand for the gospel. Jesus made a dead man come alive. God has visited his people. Can I sit down yet? But imagine you were there, or imagine that happened here. Imagine someone walking into a funeral you're attending, or stopping the funeral procession on the way to the cemetery, and then speaking to the guy in the box and saying "Get up!" What do you do? At the very least, you're not bored anymore. That's the power of this guy: the dead came to life just because he told them to. And that's the love and compassion of this guy. He didn't raise everyone from the dead, not yet, but he found the only son of a widowed mother and raised him from the dead. That is true love.

And he can and will raise us up also. He has defeated sin and death, those primordial enemies, so that we might share eternal life with him, free from the pains of this earthly life. He will bring us into a perfect paradise where there is no sin and no imperfection. But for me to get there, I have to be free of all sin and all imperfection. That's why Purgatory exists.

Christ freeing the dead
We don't think a lot about Purgatory. Maybe you remember it from Sunday School classes a long time ago, but we talk about it so little now that you might think we don't actually believe in it anymore. Well, we do. In general, the Catholic Church is the only one that teaches Purgatory. But that doesn't mean that only Catholics go to Purgatory, while Protestants go straight to Heaven. That would be a ridiculous view of spiritual realities. No, Protestants will learn about Purgatory. Maybe not until they get there, but they will learn about it. When it comes to unseen realities: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, angels, the importance of Confession or the reality of the Eucharist, either they exist for everyone or they exist for no one. They don't cease to exist or cease to be important just because you don't believe in them.

Purgatory is a wonderful intervention on God's part, it's a provision God made for our benefit, so that if we're not perfectly holy at the moment of our death we may still make it to heaven. Our Catechism says that "All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven" (CCC 1030). Our first reading today is an important text for us to understand Purgatory: even in the Old Testament, Judas Maccabeus (not Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus, a different Judas), took up a collection to pay for a temple sacrifice, because he understood that this earthly death is not the end and that those who have died can be helped on their way to heaven by our prayers. He "made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin." His kinsmen had committed idolatry, so he was trying to atone for their sin even after their death. He recognized that the dead are not beyond his help. He recognized that his prayers and sacrifices could help the dead in their ongoing purification.

To really understand the necessity of Purgatory, we need to understand the nature of sin. When we talk about sin, about breaking commandments, we sometimes fall into the danger of thinking that sinning is simply rule-breaking. God set us his rules, and if we don't obey them then that's a sin. Sinning is bad only because it's a thing God said not to do. But the nature of sin is deeper than that. Every commandment that God has given us is for our own good, because they help to draw us closer to the one that created us, and the God who created us is the only one who can give our lives meaning or purpose, he is the only one who can give us identity. Sinning isn't simply breaking rules, but it damages the most important relationship in my life: my relationship with God. And by damaging, by wounding, my relationship with my God, my sins wound me too. Even the sins that I don't think hurt other people, the evil thoughts I entertain or the things I do when no one is looking, they hurt that relationship, and so they hurt me.

Sin is not a trivial matter, and no sin, no trace of sin, will be allowed in Heaven. That's good and bad news. It's good because Heaven is going to be an unimaginably awesome place, we can't even begin to picture what it'll be like. Our second reading told us "We are God's children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is." You are going to be in a perfect relationship with the one who created you, knows you, and loves you more than anyone else does. The bad news is that our sins can delay this beautiful reunion. Because sin affects that relationship with God, if I'm still hanging onto my sins at the moment of my death, if I'm not literally a saint, then I can't just waltz right into Heaven like everything is alright. But if I sincerely love God and am truly sorry for my imperfections, then neither will I go to hell. Purgatory is there for my final purification so that I can indeed enter Heaven pure and ready.

I've said it before:
Even the Pope goes to Confession!
So today we mourn those we have lost, and we mourn our sins that separate us from God. But we don't have to stop there. We don't have to be stuck wallowing in this sadness, unable to do anything about it. You can pray for your loved ones who have died, praying that if they're not yet in Heaven that they may get there soon. And you can offer sacrifice for them. Whatever trials and sufferings you endure in your daily life, whether they are big or small, you can make an act of the will and offer those sufferings for the sake of the souls in Purgatory. You unite them to Christ's Passion, because his Cross endowed all suffering with meaning, and you can tell God that you want to offer your daily sufferings for the souls in Purgatory.

And for your own sins that separate you from God, we have the beautiful sacrament of Confession. Like I said early on, Confession, and all spiritual realities, are not just important for those who like it, or for those with huge sins to confess, while everyone else just confesses to God in their heart. Confession is important for each and every one of us, myself included. Confession doesn't exist for you to be judged, it exists for you to be loved. God can't wait to show you his love on Confession.

Confession and Purgatory are gifts from God to help us on our way to Heaven. They come to us from a God who loves us, who recognizes our weakness and loves us anyway. Accept the gifts, and let yourself be loved by God.