Sunday, May 24, 2015

Pentecost Today

A blessed Pentecost to all! Today's feast of Pentecost marks the end of the Easter season because it commemorates the final event to complete the redemption wrought on Easter. Sometimes we call Pentecost the birthday of the Church, because the Pentecost event was the last thing necessary for the Church to exist. So for the Church to exist, Jesus had to be born, to die, rise again, and ascend into heaven. Everything about Jesus unites us to God. But for this community of believers on earth to be more than just a club or a movement, for us to be constituted as a Church united with our God in Heaven, we need something, someone, truly Divine to dwell with us. We need the Holy Spirit. So the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost  is what makes us more than just a movement or a neat idea. Pentecost is what makes the Church what she is: a divine institution on earth.

So let's do a quick catechism review. Pentecost is where the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and enabled them to preach to the nations. This was symbolized most dramatically by them being able to speak and be understood in languages they didn't know. They were truly sent to all the nations Now, who is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. Sometimes I hear people describe the Trinity as consisting of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. That can lead us to astray, because is Jesus God? Yes. Is the Holy Spirit God? Yes! This is why we pray in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and not in the name of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. So we have to keep in mind that this Holy Spirit who was given to us at Pentecost is not just the spirit of God like it's separate from God himself, and it's not like one third of God, but the Holy Spirit is God himself. The Holy Spirit is love.

So on this, the birthday of the Church when the Holy Spirit was sent to dwell with us, do you realize what you have signed up for? Today in our Collect (Opening Prayer), we prayed for a renewal of the same Holy Spirit that turned these first apostles into such bold missionaries. The opening prayers is more properly called the Collect because the priest offers a single prayer on behalf of the people that collects all our needs. This prayer is not my own concoction but is given by the Church. So by attending Mass every Sunday, you trust the Church to understand your needs and the priest to articulate them to God. So in case you missed it, this is what we prayed:

O God, why by the mystery of today's great feast
sanctify your whole Church in every people and nation,
pour out, we pray, the gifts of the Holy Spirit
across the face of the earth
and, with the divine grace that was at work
when the Gospel was first proclaimed,
fill now once more the hearts of believers.

Did you catch that last part? We prayed that the divine grace that was at work in the apostles may be at work in us too. And you know what they say, "Don't ask God for patience because you'll get it," well that applies to about everything. If you ask God for the grace to make you as bold as the first apostles, you're going to get it. And that's a good thing. We need the courage of the first apostles. Our world needs us to have the courage of the first apostles.

You are not a Christian for your own sake. Do you ever think about that? You are not a Christian for your own sake. Your religion, your faith, isn't fundamentally about you. And it's not for you. It's not about making you feel good. Your religion and your faith is about God. It's about the God who so loved the world that he sent his only Son, who died and rose and in turn sent the Holy Spirit to dwell with each one us. So if your faith is about God, then it's for the world that he loves. God has made you a Christian because he wants the world to come to know Christ through you. Yes, you are a Christian because God loves you and welcomed you into his family, but you are a Christian for the sake of others.

So we prayed for a renewal of the same Spirit that the apostles had at Pentecost that enabled them to boldly preach the Gospel. And if we ask, God gives. So, what are you going to do with this Spirit? My friends, for our sake and for the sake of the world we have to let this Spirit renew our world. The world needs a renewal of the Holy Spirit.

If this renewal is going to take place, three things have to happen.

First, you have to know and believe that the Holy Spirit dwells in you and in our Church and that he wants to work through you. You have to know it and believe it. This means you have to follow Church teaching: all of them, even the uncomfortable teachings like contraception and the gay marriage agenda. To reject Church teaching is not to reject the priest, the unworthy messenger, but rather it is to reject the Holy Spirit that teaches through the Church.

Second, you have to be constantly renewed and nourished by the sacramental life of the Church, especially through regular participation at the Eucharist and at Confession. And not just regular participation, but reverent participation. We have to keep before our minds that the sacraments are not human inventions but rather are divine gifts. They are heaven come down to earth, and they are us lowly creatures being drawn up to heaven. This demands all of our respect and awe. We are weak creatures and we need this reverential renewal.

And third, you have to have the courage to speak the name of Jesus to those around you like the apostles did. Don't be afraid of the discomfort of saying, "I disagree, but I still love." And don't quote to me St. Francis saying "Preach the Gospel at all times and use words if necessary." St. Francis never said that. St. Francis was so excited to preach the Gospel that he preached to the birds when the people wouldn't listen. The world desperately needs to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. We need to let the martyrs prove to us that a comfortable life is not the highest good.

So three things to renew our world: Know and believe that the Holy Spirit dwells in the Church, participate reverently in the Sacraments, and preach Jesus by name. This is how we preach with the courage of the apostles, this is how the divine grace at work when the gospel was first preached can fill our hearts once more. This is how we make Pentecost alive in our lives.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

True Greatness

The New Emangalization recently linked to a psychology article (the article is solid, some of the sidebar ads are a bit beyond PG rated) about what video game usage and porn are doing to men today. Well, I perused the article and then I perused the comments section. Never peruse the comments section. If you do, there are only a couple of conclusions: either the world is filled with hopelessly unintelligent people, or people hide behind their keyboards and say belligerent and rude things they would never say in real life.

But the one thought I want to share after being scandalized by the comments section is this: What good do video games contribute to one's life? Even if you want to call the article a load of baloney, there is very little defense for video games other than the "What does it hurt line?" line. But if our only defense of  a thing is "What does it hurt?" then we're going at it all wrong. Rather than asking "What does it hurt?" we should be asking, "What does it contribute?" or "What value does it hold?" By asking "What does it hurt?", you're trying to identify a bottom threshold of acceptability rather than aiming for greatness. We are made for greatness, and because we are made for greatness we should always be seeking the good rather than just avoiding the bad. We should let things into our lives because they're good for us, not simply because they're not bad.

I think you could probably construct a shallow defense of video games by calling it a social activity. I think Wii bowling is more social than World of Warcraft, even if you are "interacting" with people all around the world. I think video games can be social for a time, but they don't stay that way. By comparison, the first couple beers of an evening are social, beer number eight or nine is something else. In moderation, perhaps you can defend video games as a social thing. But beyond that, they don't contribute to your greatness, and that is what you are truly made for.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Supernatural Love

Jesus offers us some beautiful words today about how much he loves us. Like the last couple weeks, this is part of the Last Supper discourse, so this is part of Jesus's last and most important words to us before he dies. And the last and most important word from Jesus is indeed love. The love of God is something we pay lip service to, but sometimes we fail to understand the magnitude of this love because we caught up in rules and commandments.

So think of the most important relationships in your life, think of the people you absolutely love the most. For me it's my parents. And as much as I love my parents, it can't compare to the love that God the Father has for them. As much as my parents love me, it can't compare to the love that God the Father has for me. Sometimes couples will say to each other, or parents will say to their children, "No one loves you more than me." And that's a fine thing to say. But as much as you love your spouse or your child, try to wrap your head around the fact that God loves them more. Not just because Jesus laid down his life for them. Most any parent would lay down their life for their child. No, God loves them more because God is the source of love. Any love that we have for each other comes from God. And no matter how pure our love for each other may be, the love that God has for us in infinitely more pure, because love is all there is to God.

Love is so much a part of God, and can only come from God, that St. John in our second reading says, "Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love." God is love, and if you don't know love, then you don't know God. The other side of the coin is that inasmuch as you have real, authentic love in your life, God is present there. So we need to make sure we have a good grasp on what love means when we're talking about God. Because the Christian claims about love and about God are completely unique in the world, and they stand against the world's claims about love and against every world religion's claims about love and about God.

Mohammed as shown in a medieval manuscript by al-Biruni
Jesus tells us, "I no longer call you slaves, but friends." If we look at the next largest religion in the world after Christianity, Islam, we see something very different. The root of the word Christ means anointed on, so the definition of Christian is one who follows Christ, and Jesus the Christ, Jesus the anointed one, has in fact called us his friends. But the word Islam means submission, so a Muslim is one who submits to God. No where in Islam would you be called a child of God. In Islam you submit to God, tantamount to being a slave.

But this is not the Christian claim. We Christians claim, based partially on this gospel passage, to be the very friends of God, even his own children through baptism. But of course, we can't claim that Christianity is true and Islam is false simply because Christianity is nicer. No, we claim Christianity to be true and Islam to be false because Jesus rose from the dead just like he said he would, and thus he proved true everything he claimed about himself.

Jesus has proven himself true in every, and so we can trust that he has our best interests at heart when he tells us to remain in his love. We can see that the Christian claim that God is love stands contrary to the Muslim claims about man's relationship with God, but the Christian understanding of love is also contrary to our world's understanding of love. As the world would have it, love is equivalent to approval, so that if I love you, I approve of whatever it is you want to do. But that's not love. That's not how God loves us. God loves us by calling us beyond our natural lives and natural inclinations into a supernatural life that only he can offer. Every rule and commandment that God gives us through his Church is because of love. Every single commandment that the Church gives is an invitation into a supernatural love.

God loves us too much to just grant a blanket permission to whatever we want to do, so he gives commandments for our good. And because God gives commandments, obedience to those commandments is a necessary part of responding to God's love. To pick and choose from the rules or commandments of the Church is to refuse God's supernatural love and to reject your rightful position as his son or his daughter. Every time our conscience pricks us to go to Confession and we don't, it's a refusal of supernatural love. Every time we choose to miss Mass, it's a refusal of supernatural love. Every time we duck out after Communion, it's a refusal of supernatural love. Every time we refuse to help our neighbor, it's a refusal of God's supernatural love. But every time you do go to Confession, every time you go to Mass even though it's difficult and you stick around through the very end, every time you choose to help your neighbor, that's you saying yes to God's invitation to supernatural love.

So, are you living your life from supernatural love? The most obvious way to answer this question is to ask yourself if you live all the commandments, or just some of them? You hurt your ability to participate in the supernatural love of God if you pick and choose. But then you also want to ask yourself if you find the strength you need to get through the day from God or from some other source. If God is the source of your strength, it doesn't make the trials of this life go away, but it endows them with meaning because we have a God who has suffered, so now he suffers your trials with you. If God is the source of your strength then there is a light in the darkness because you are living in his supernatural love.

Our religion about so much more than rules and commandments, it's about so much more than just going to church on Sunday and throwing some money in the collection basket. Our religion is about God physically present in the world, both in history and here in the present. Our religion is about supernatural love personified in Jesus Christ, and that supernatural love inviting us out of our natural lives into a supernatural life that we could never know on our own.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Vine and the Branches

 I am the vine, you are the branches, apart from me you can do nothing.

These sorts of posters kind of drive me crazy
This is a verse we've heard before, we know it and we love it. Perhaps we've seen it done up as a sort of Christian inspirational print, with some grapes in the background and this quote about the vine and branches in a nice wavy cursive script. Very inspirational.

But what we have here is not Jesus the motivational speaker, this is Jesus giving his last will and testament. This discourse is taking place at the Last Supper, just hours before his agonizing Passion and Death. Jesus isn't giving a motivation talk here, he's giving one last instruction and plea before his death for his disciples to remain close to him.

Jesus uses this image of a vine and branches to demonstrate just how much we need him in our lives. What he's saying is I am the vine, you are the branches, apart from me your works are empty. I am the vine you are the branches, apart from me whatever you do means nothing. I am the vine, you are the branches, apart from me you are as good as dead. That's what he's saying when he says, "Apart from me you can do nothing." And we put it up on our houses and call it inspirational.

And it should be inspirational. It should inspire us to stay attached to the vine that gives us life. Jesus is trying to make us understand that we need him in our lives, we need him in every aspect of our lives. He says, "Apart from me you can do nothing," and yet we know we do a thousand things a day that don't seem to involve him, so we have to realize that those things we do apart from him, no matter how good they may be, are empty, are meaningless, inasmuch as they are separated from him.

We had First Communion at the parish today.
It looked something like this.
So we have to find a way to stay connected to the vine. Jesus gave us that way. Remember, this discourse from Jesus took place at the Last Supper, where Jesus gave us his own Body and Blood, his very self, hidden under bread and wine. He says, "Stay connected to me, the vine," but it's not like he's testing our cleverness to see if we can find a way to do that. He says, "Stay connected to me, the vine," and then he gives us the exact means for doing so. The Eucharist is how we stay connected to Jesus the vine, and to his Father who is the vine grower.

So if Jesus is telling the truth here when he talks about the vine and the branches, then we have to acknowledge our absolute need for the Eucharist. If we the branches are going to stay connected to the vine, then we have to stay connected to the Eucharist. The Eucharist is our connection to Jesus, because it is Jesus himself.

Beautiful Bighorns: still not as cool as Jesus
Sometimes without actually thinking about it, we redefine for ourselves what the Eucharist means. Without actually putting it into precise formulas, we start to act like the Eucharist is a symbol of Jesus and not actually Jesus himself. We don't do this explicitly or on purpose, but we do this because if we can define the Eucharist to be less than it really is, then it helps to rationalize only coming to Mass when it's convenient, or it helps to rationalize being inattentive or irreverent when we are here. But Jesus didn't leave that option open to us. In the sixth chapter of John's gospel, when Jesus explained that you would have to eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life, many people got understandably upset and went to leave. And he let them leave. Jesus was so serious about this teaching that he let some of the disciples leave, rather than compromise the teaching that the Eucharist really is his body and blood.

Very tempting on a Sunday morning: Jesus is still cooler
So if the Eucharist is so serious that it was worth it to have some of his friends and followers desert him, then we need to examine our own attitudes and we need to make sure that we take this as seriously as Jesus does. I understand life is incredibly busy and sometimes it's just easier to sleep in on a Sunday morning, and as the weather gets warmer it's going to be really tempting to stay in the mountains another couple hours rather than come down to make it to Mass. Part of this, I suspect, is because when we look at the Eucharist, we don't see what looks like Jesus. He says, "This is my Body," and we're like, "I'm not seeing it." If he wants us to be committed to the Eucharist, then why is he so hidden in it? Part of it is that he hides so we don't have to. If the fullness of his love was unveiled in the tabernacle or on the altar, we would be afraid to come near this building at all. But he wants us, weak and sinful creatures, to be able to approach, even to receive, his power, his perfection, his holiness. So he hides himself in the Eucharist, so we don't have to hide ourselves from him.

So depend on this love. Stay connected to the vine by staying connected to the Eucharist. Jesus wants to give each of the strength we need in this life, and he wants to give it to us through the Eucharist. Our job is to respond to that love. Our job is not to make ourselves worthy, only Jesus can make us worthy. Our job is to make ourselves available to that transformative love that can only be found in him. Almost every one of us has started this lifelong path of transformation, but not a single person here is far enough. We are never far enough. However far you are in this Christian life, Jesus wants to love you more. Stay connected to the vine, be available to that love.