Friday, April 27, 2012

Follow Jesus!

NOTE: Andrew Sullivan has an intriguing piece in the April 9 issue of Newsweek unfortunately titled "Forget the Church, Follow Jesus."  Despite the poor title, the article makes some poignant arguments.  It doesn't hurt that he proposes St. Francis as the model for us to follow.  Here's a quote from that article:

Christianity Resurrected

I have no concrete idea how Christianity will wrestle free of its current crisis, of its distractions and temptations, and above all its enmeshment with the things of this world. But I do know it won’t happen by even more furious denunciations of others, by focusing on politics rather than prayer, by concerning ourselves with the sex lives and heretical thoughts of others rather than with the constant struggle to liberate ourselves from what keeps us from God. What Jefferson saw in Jesus of Nazareth was utterly compatible with reason and with the future; what Saint Francis trusted in was the simple, terrifying love of God for Creation itself. That never ends.

This Christianity comes not from the head or the gut, but from the soul. It is as meek as it is quietly liberating. It does not seize the moment; it lets it be. It doesn’t seek worldly recognition, or success, and it flees from power and wealth. It is the religion of unachievement. And it is not afraid. In the anxious, crammed lives of our modern twittering souls, in the materialist obsessions we cling to for security in recession, in a world where sectarian extremism threatens to unleash mass destruction, this sheer Christianity, seeking truth without the expectation of resolution, simply living each day doing what we can to fulfill God’s will, is more vital than ever. It may, in fact, be the only spiritual transformation that can in the end transcend the nagging emptiness of our late-capitalist lives, or the cult of distracting contemporaneity, or the threat of apocalyptic war where Jesus once walked. You see attempts to find this everywhere—from experimental spirituality to resurgent fundamentalism. Something inside is telling us we need radical spiritual change.

But the essence of this change has been with us, and defining our own civilization, for two millennia. And one day soon, when politics and doctrine and pride recede, it will rise again.

I know My sheep!

HOMILY FOR THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER, World Day of Prayer for Vocations, April 29, 2012:.

Jesus was walking around Heaven one day and came out by the gates where St. Peter was hard at work sorting out those who would enter Heaven from those who wouldn’t.  Jesus said, “Pete, you’re at the Gate a lot.  When do you take a break?”  Peter said, “Never. This is my job. All the time.”  Jesus, feeling compassionate for His friend said, “Hey, I’ll take over for a while, why don’t you grab a cup of coffee.”  Peter gladly said yes and went on his way.  Jesus opened the Book of Life and looked up to the next person in line.  “Name?” he said.  “Mary O’Donnell,” the old woman responded.  Seeing her name he said, “Ah, yes, here you are. Head right on in, we’ve been waiting for you…Next.”  A middle-aged man stepped up and gave his name, “John Smith.”  Jesus looked at the Book and didn’t see his name. “Sorry John, you’re not in here.  You’ll have to take that elevator over there…press the down button…Next.”  Suddenly an old man appeared before Jesus and he looked familiar.  “And you are…” Jesus asked.  The man responded, “I’m a carpenter.  And, I was told that my son was in there.  I’d like to see him.  You’d recognize him, he’s got nail marks in his hands and in his feet.”  Jesus was stunned, He leaned forward, looked at the old man, smiled and said, “Dad?”  The man’s eyes widened and he looked at Jesus and said, “Pinocchio?”

“I am the Good Shepherd, I know my sheep and my sheep know me.”  There is something poetic about the fact that as I mark my final weekend here as your pastor before I head back to Boston to resume my full time work of Vocation Director that we celebrate today the World Day of Prayer for Vocations.  What a perfect day to be mindful of vocations as we hear this Gospel reading in which Jesus gives us this powerful image of Himself as the Good Shepherd.  To fully understand the image, we first need to know a little bit about shepherds and what they do.  In Jesus’ time, there were two kinds of shepherds. First, there was the hired hand for whom keeping the sheep was just a job. He moved from flock to flock depending on the conditions of service and he would most definitely not risk his life for them. Seeing danger he would flee and leave the flock untended.  Then there is the shepherd-owner of the flock who grows up with the flock and stays with the same sheep all his life. He knows each and every sheep in the flock individually. He calls each one by name and knows everything about each of his sheep. He knows which ones are strong, which are weak; which ones might stray from the flock and would keep an eye on them. When in danger, he would risk his life to defend his sheep.

Jesus tells us that this is the kind of shepherd He is.  He knows each one of us individually.  He knows the cares and concerns of our lives.  He knows our needs.  He knows our strengths and weaknesses.  He knows what we can be.  And this is the heart of vocation.  Discovering our best identity – who we are called to be in God’s sight. God continually calls people.  We must create environments in our lives, in our families where we help and allow people to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, so that they can follow where He will lead.  The Good Shepherd is calling all of us to something. He is most definitely calling someone here today to the priesthood or religious life.  The question is, can we hear His voice?

You know, people talk about the vocation crisis – what are we going to do, there aren’t enough priests and religious?  I can tell you that there is no vocation crisis.  All I have to do is show you the wonderful young people in this parish alone who love God, who are involved in many aspects of our parish life, who are always there when it comes to service, who very likely may have a vocation to the priesthood or religious life.  But, time after time, that seed of vocation planted in their hearts is not nurtured or encouraged by those around them. 
Just think about your own experience for a moment.  When was the last time you said to someone, “I think you’d make a good priest, or religious sister or brother?”  Or, if someone expressed a desire to become a priest or religious, would you be more likely to say to that person, “Why would you want to do that?”  I know in my own vocational journey, I heard that response very often.  The crisis the Church is facing is not a vocation crisis, it is a crisis of vocation awareness.  Young people are not encouraged today to think about a life dedicated to God in the Church.  It’s no wonder why we have a dwindling number of priests and religious?

It is up to us to be people who value the role that priests and religious can play in our lives.  We have to be people who encourage our young to consider lives of dedication and service as priests and religious.  I don’t know if I would be a priest today if it weren’t for the support I received from crucial people in my life as I explored this call – the Dominican sisters who taught me and encouraged a vocation, my aunt Maureen who is a Sister of Mercy and who showed me the joy that can be found in religious life, Fr. Marc Hession who was my first mentor and led me toward a life of priestly service, and most importantly my mother and father, who gave witness to me of what it means to live a Christian life.

I challenge all of our young people to consider living a life dedicated to God as a priest or religious.  And, even more so, I challenge everyone here today to pray for vocations and encourage vocations.  If you’ve ever thought that someone might be called to the priesthood or religious life, tell them.  Maybe they’ve been waiting for someone to confirm what they’ve been feeling inside. We can’t bemoan the problem of fewer priests without recognizing our own responsibility in this regard.

The question of vocation is all about identity.  Who we are is what is important.  And the only important answer to the question of our identity is who we are before God.  St. Francis would remind his brothers, “You are what You are before God.  That and nothing more.”   The Good Shepherd helps us to see this.  He knows who we are intimately and wants to help us grow to see ourselves primarily through the eyes of faith – as God’s sons and daughters.  It is only when we know our true identity before God, we discover our vocation.

If this identity has been nurtured by those around us, and if we’ve been open to the Good Shepherd, we see it most clearly each and every time we gather around the Eucharistic table of our Lord.  Receiving the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Jesus, tells us something about ourselves.  When we enter into that personal relationship with Jesus that we can only have in the Eucharist, Jesus helps us to discover who he has called us to be.  We are most clearly the people we are called to be in the Eucharist.  You want to know what Jesus asks of you, what Jesus wants you to do, what your vocation is – meet Jesus in the Eucharist and he will reveal it to you.

I’ve told my vocation story many times before.  But, it all boils down to this.  As a teen, I really didn’t have any faith.  I did not yet know the Lord.  In my early 20s I felt drawn for the first time in my life to the Eucharist.  When I began going to Mass, I started to have powerful experiences.  The Mass was speaking to me in ways it never had before.  I felt the presence of Jesus that I had never felt before.  I remember receiving the Eucharist at one of these Masses and in a spiritual sense this was my first Communion because it was the first time that I truly believed in my heart that this was Jesus.  And when I met Him personally, for the first time, in that Eucharist, He began to show me who I really was and what He really wanted from me.  It was through meeting Jesus in the Eucharist that I discovered my vocation, my calling, my place in God’s Kingdom.  And you can too.

We have all been led here by a Good Shepherd who knows His sheep and wants the best for them.  We will meet Him in a profound and special way in the Eucharist and discover who we are in God’s sight and what God has planned for us in His Kingdom. “I am the Good Shepherd and I know mine and mine know me.” Let us pray that more young men and women will have the courage to pursue the vocation that God is calling them to; that they will follow the Good Shepherd.  And let us be the people who encourage them to do so.    And if you know any of them, send them to me!

May God bless the Church with many vocations and may God give you peace.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Without Fanfare, Malloy Signs Bill Abolishing Death Penalty

NOTE: In a world where the Culture of Death so often prevails, how wonderful to have a victory for life! Way to go Connecticut! I worked with the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty when I was stationed there. So happy to see the work of so many come to fruition! - FT
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s signature this afternoon has abolished the death penalty for future crimes in Connecticut.
The signing was announced only after the fact.
Malloy had promised to sign the bill, but as recently as Tuesday his office said they had no knowledge of when he would sign it.
About 2:15 p.m., however, his office released this statement:
“This afternoon I signed legislation that will, effective today, replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of release as the highest form of legal punishment in Connecticut.  Although it is an historic moment – Connecticut joins 16 other states and the rest of the industrialized world by taking this action – it is a moment for sober reflection, not celebration.
“Many of us who have advocated for this position over the years have said there is a moral component to our opposition to the death penalty.  For me, that is certainly the case.  But that does not mean – nor should it mean – that we question the morality of those who favor capital punishment.  I certainly don’t.  I know many people whom I deeply respect, including friends and family, that believe the death penalty is just.  In fact, the issue knows no boundaries: not political party, not gender, age, race, or any other demographic.  It is, at once, one of the most compelling and vexing issues of our time.
“My position on the appropriateness of the death penalty in our criminal justice system evolved over a long period of time.  As a young man, I was a death penalty supporter.  Then I spent years as a prosecutor and pursued dangerous felons in court, including murderers.  In the trenches of a criminal courtroom, I learned firsthand that our system of justice is very imperfect.  While it’s a good system designed with the highest ideals of our democratic society in mind, like most of human experience, it is subject to the fallibility of those who participate in it.  I saw people who were poorly served by their counsel.  I saw people wrongly accused or mistakenly identified.  I saw discrimination.  In bearing witness to those things, I came to believe that doing away with the death penalty was the only way to ensure it would not be unfairly imposed.
“Another factor that led me to today is the ‘unworkability’ of Connecticut’s death penalty law.  In the last 52 years, only 2 people have been put to death in Connecticut – and both of them volunteered for it.  Instead, the people of this state pay for appeal after appeal, and then watch time and again as defendants are marched in front of the cameras, giving them a platform of public attention they don’t deserve.  It is sordid attention that rips open never-quite-healed wounds.  The 11 men currently on death row in Connecticut are far more likely to die of old age than they are to be put to death.
“As in past years, the campaign to abolish the death penalty in Connecticut has been led by dozens of family members of murder victims, and some of them were present as I signed this legislation today.   In the words of one such survivor: ‘Now is the time to start the process of healing, a process that could have been started decades earlier with the finality of a life sentence. We cannot afford to put on hold the lives of these secondary victims.  We need to allow them to find a way as early as possible to begin to live again.’  Perhaps that is the most compelling message of all.
“As our state moves beyond this divisive debate, I hope we can all redouble our efforts and common work to improve the fairness and integrity of our criminal justice system, and to minimize its fallibility.”

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Got anything to eat?

There was a wonderful comedy with Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep that came out back in the 1990s called Defending Your Life. In the story, Albert Brook’s character Daniel has died, but before he goes to heaven, in a sort of purgatory called Judgment City, he has to literally defend his life before God’s representatives. Each day he goes to a room, much like a courtroom, where they show scenes from his life – the good, the bad and the ugly – and he has to defend his decisions in each of those moments. A successful defense means entry into Heaven. But, one of my favorite scenes in the movie is an interaction between Daniel and Julia, another recently deceased played by Meryl Streep. The two of them strike up a friendship and spend a lot of time together waiting for their judgment. On one of these evenings, the two go to a restaurant in Purgatory and the beauty of Purgatory is that they serve only the best food; you can eat as much of it as you want; and you don’t gain any weight! So, as the camera pans the restaurant you see people devouring heaping platters of lobsters, steaks, pasta and desserts! Purgatory doesn’t sound so bad, now, does it?! Makes you hungry just thinking about it.

Easter is of course a time of year when we also focus on the afterlife. We celebrate the incredible event of the resurrection and we immerse ourselves in these remarkable post-resurrection accounts in Scripture. We have the holy women who are the first to discover the empty tomb, disciples racing to see if it could all be true. We have the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus. As he speaks to the disciples on the road to Emmaus and that wonderful statement, “Were not our hearts burning within us as He spoke to us?” And how they came to recognize Him in the breaking of the bread. He appears again to Peter and others at the sea of Tiberius as they are fishing. They make a miraculous catch at His command and he sits down with them and prepares a breakfast. As we heard last Sunday, He appeared again to the disciples who were locked in the upper room in fear. Thomas puts his finger in the wounds in Jesus and proclaims, “My Lord and my God.”

And of course, we have the passage before us today. As Jesus appears once again. This appearance takes place just after the disciples told everyone what had happened on that road to Emmaus. And, Jesus asks a very important question of those gathered there. Maybe you heard it. He said, “Have you anything to eat?” Now, I don’t know if you are picking up on the theme here, but after He has risen from the dead, Jesus seems to keep asking this same question, “Got anything to eat?” Road to Emmaus – they sit down and eat. Sea of Tiberius – He makes them breakfast. In the room where they are gathered today, Jesus is hungry again and we’re told that they gave Him a piece of baked fish and He enjoyed it. We can only come to one conclusion – rising from the dead makes you really hungry! I guess Defending Your Life was right! What Jesus wouldn’t give for a Country Buffet!

Of course, that’s not the point of these details. But, they are there for an equally important reason. These stories don’t want to only recall the encounters that Jesus had with His disciples after His resurrection before His ascension, but they want us to know something key – this man is real. The resurrected Christ is a flesh and blood, breathing and yes eating human being. He is still a human being just like you and me. This is why we profess in the Creed each week that we believe in the resurrection OF THE BODY. Ghosts don’t eat baked fish. Visions don’t get hungry. Humans do and that’s what Jesus is after the resurrection just as before.

And this isn’t meant to be an interesting, yet unimportant, detail for us to pick up on from Scripture. Instead, we are reminded first that through the grace of our baptism, we too are welcomed into a life that is eternal with God in Heaven. That we too will be resurrected, body and soul, in the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. We will not be ghosts; we will not be angels; we will not be spirits in the life that is to come – we will continue to be human beings who need to eat and sleep, live and breathe, but perfected through a life of grace in God’s Kingdom where sin and death are no more.

There is a tremendous intimacy that Jesus invites us into through this grace of resurrection. In a simplistic way, it is all about the body. Not only the Body of Christ raised from the dead and ascended into glory 2,000 years ago. But, it is about the Body and Blood of Christ present in our midst at each and every Mass; taken into our own bodies to mingle with us, unite with us, as we receive Holy Communion each week.

Scott Hahn in his book First Comes Love, speaks about this intimate reality. He writes, “Too little do Christians today realize the glory they receive in the Eucharist, the Mass. This is unimaginable intimacy. A long-ago Christian from Thessalonica, Nicholas Cabasilas, wrote that Christ’s ‘union with those whom He loves surpasses every union of which one can conceive.’ It is the closest family union possible—closer than mother and child, closer than husband and wife, closer than twin siblings—it binds a lowly human being to the Almighty God! Cabasilas goes so far to say, ‘To whom else could one be more closely united than to oneself? Yet this very unity is inferior’ to the union of God with the believer!”

In every Eucharist, we are literally united to Christ in the body. We receive His Body into our body and He becomes literally part of us, one with us and we with Him. As St. Augustine said and I so frequently quote, in the Eucharist “we become what we receive.” The resurrected Body of Christ becomes part of us and we are transformed, day-by-day, bit-by-bit, Eucharist-by-Eucharist into resurrection; into eternity. Easter is not only His; Easter is ours too!

Archbishop Tom Murphy was the much beloved Archbishop of Seattle through the late 1980s and most of the 1990s. Archbishop Murphy was a true shepherd who loved his flock and was always very present to the people, especially the youth. He had a particularly close relationship with the teens at one of his Catholic high schools where he essentially acted as their chaplain. Archbishop Murphy, despite his busy schedule, was always available to the school whenever the sacraments needed to be celebrated there for the students. They were his kids and he was their Archbishop.

But, in 1996, he was diagnosed with an acute form of leukemia. For the last year of his life, he underwent some serious chemotherapy and other treatments trying to fight the cancer and these took a toll on his body, leaving him in need of regular blood transfusions to keep up his strength. His kids saw this as their opportunity to reach out to this holy man who had done so much for them. They began to organize blood drives as frequently as they could so that their Archbishop would have the blood needed for his transfusions. He even jokingly called them his “little vampires” who were running around town to keep him alive.

At his last Mass with the teens he said to them, “Since I was a little boy, I have always loved the Mass and in particular loved the Eucharist. As a young boy, I would serve even at daily Mass and was always in awe of what took place on the altar. But, I don’t know that I ever fully understood it until now. Today, as I stand here, I’ve got your blood in me and I’m standing here alive today because of your blood in me. Now I get it.” He died six days later and surely received his heavenly reward.

My brothers and sisters, this is what Easter is all about. Do we get it?  It is not only about one resurrected body 2,000 years ago. It is about that same resurrected body appearing on our altar each day with an invitation: Take Me into yourselves. Let Me be united with you in the most intimate way possible. Feel my body and blood coursing through your veins giving you life; eternal life.

My friends, at each Eucharist, we have got the Body and Blood of Jesus coursing through our veins and uniting with our cells. Each time we gather here, we are becoming more and more what we receive; more and more the Body of Christ together. We stand here alive today because the Body and Blood of Christ poured out for us; runs through our veins. Let us live in the resurrection Christ promised us at our Baptism and affirms in us at each and every Mass. We believe the resurrection of the Body and life everlasting. Amen.

May God give you peace.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Nothing can separate us...

“Dear Katie,

I wrote this little poem for you and I hope that when we are married and celebrating our Golden wedding anniversary (50 years) that you will have this little love note from your sweetheart. My Darling I will always Love you and hope and pray that you will always love me. This is a …Valentine I am giving you, one that means everything that it says… written by your darling (I hope so).

I will close with all my love, to my love, from her Love. My Darling, My Katie, My Dear,

Loads of Love,

What I just shared is a love letter written from my grandfather to my grandmother a few years before they were married. It was 1935 and he was in the Navy, just 18 years old. I came across that letter in my desk drawer today and was shocked to realize it has been 10 years since my grandmother died. We buried her on the Wednesday of Holy Week 10 years ago. When preparing for her funeral, I found that love letter in her bedroom. Up until that moment, no one knew of that letter other than my grandmother and my grandfather. After finding that letter I shared it with my family and those gathered at her funeral.

I share it with you today because that experience has been on my heart this week because it taught me in a profound way what Easter is all about. It was the lesson learned while experiencing the grief of losing a loved one so close to the celebration of Easter, the celebration of resurrection. I remember heading back to my parish on Holy Thursday that year, the day after burying my grandmother and thinking about my Easter Sunday homily not knowing if I could preach in the midst of my grief. But I realized in that moment, that if I couldn’t preach about the resurrection specifically when someone close to me had died, then perhaps I didn’t have the right to ever talk about it. You see, it is precisely when we’re in the midst of mourning, that the message of the resurrection is the most powerful message ever – it is the message that says death is not the end, death doesn’t get the last word – there will be newness of life, and life everlasting!

Grief is a common experience and as we gather this Easter. I’m sure most of us have experienced some form of loss over the course of this last year or so. Just in my own life in the last few months I lost a cousin just a few years younger than me who took his own life and a good friend not much older than me who died suddenly of a heart attack. Perhaps you also come here tonight with a heavy heart, or are praying for someone else experiencing that kind of grief. If you do, there can be no more powerful message to the grieving heart then the message of Resurrection from the dead.

We began tonight with the singing of the Exultet, which is the great hymn of resurrection sung only on this night. You may have picked up on a powerful line in the hymn that said, the “power of this night dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners.” Joy to mourners. I was struck by that last line – the power of the resurrection does so many things including bringing joy to those who grieve and mourn. Why? Because there can be no greater joy known in the world then the realization of the resurrection in the face of mourning and grief. There can be no greater joy when faced with the sudden or tragic or even expected loss of someone than to remember – this is not the end; life goes on; I will see you again; Heaven is our true home; death has no power over us.

We have to shake off the way our culture wants to trivialize this day and reduce it to fancy clothes and colored candy eggs. This day isn’t about pastel colors, lots of candy and a good meal. If we are conscious of its meaning, Easter promises us something that seems to good to be true – it promises us eternity and glory with Christ. Easter isn’t just another day; it is an event that brings the most profound joy into the most difficult moments of our lives.

This great event and celebration can’t be something that we merely commemorate today at this Mass, but it must be something we connect with at the most painful and difficult moments in our lives with the firm trust and firm faith that God can bring new life to any situation. Saint Paul tells us in his letter to the Thessalonians, “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” We do believe and we do have hope.

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the very center of what we believe. We must ask ourselves today more than ever, do we believe it? Do we truly in our hearts believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, that we too will be raised from the dead, that the loved ones whose loss we grieve have been raised from the dead? Can we stand with family members and friends who have lost someone and say, “He or she is with God now. They have been saved by the resurrection of Jesus.” We absolutely must have a faith that can say precisely that; otherwise, what is the point?

And why? Because we are a people who believe in the empty tomb. Our gospel stories today leave us with that silent and powerful image – that empty tomb. The stone has been rolled away and there is no body left in that tomb because it has been raised! We are people of the empty tomb.

It is yet another of the paradoxes that our faith presents us with this week. Thursday brought us from the wine of the Eucharist to the water of foot washing; Good Friday transformed the cross, an image of death, into an image that promises so much more – life; eternal life. And today, that empty tomb is also transformed. The tomb that held the dead body of Christ has now been transformed into a womb that gives birth to eternal life. This empty tomb speaks our faith – it speaks of a God who can conquer all things, who can triumph over all things, who can transform and change any situation into one that burst with life – not even death has power over this God of ours!

My friends, we need to be mindful of this message more today than ever before. In the midst of all of the danger and violence and strife and war in our world, God tells us that He will raise us to new life, new possibilities, new ways to care for one another, to love one another, to establish peace. God will renew us, transform us, change us, make us new, bring us to new life! The empty tomb becomes a womb of new life!

Nothing can triumph over this. As St. Paul said, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

My brothers and sisters the tomb has no power over we who believe! O death, where is your sting? Nothing at all can keep us from being born to a newness of life – as individuals, as a community, as priest and people, as Church. I can say with confidence my grandmother is raised, my grandfather is raised, all the loved ones that we’ve lost have been raised, this Church will be raised, our warring world will be raised, each one of us will be raised - if we open ourselves and embrace the resurrection that Christ has planned for each of us.
The empty tomb has become the womb giving birth to eternal life! Jesus has risen as He promised – let us rejoice and be glad!

Happy Easter and may God give you peace!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Will you let me wash your feet?

HOMILY FOR THE MASS OF THE LORD'S SUPPER, Holy Thursday, April 5, 2012:
I want to invite you to join me in a little sing-a-long. I know, you know this song, so join me. “Silent Night, Holy Night. All is calm. All is bright. Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child. Holy Infant, so tender and mild. Christ the Savior is born. Christ the Savior is born.” Now before you start thinking, Fr. Tom is losing it (some might have thought that already), let me say that I think there is a beautiful connection between the great Feast of Christmas which we celebrated almost four months ago and this Mass of the Lord’s Supper that we gather here to commemorate tonight.

The connection is that in a way, what we begin tonight brings what we celebrated at Christmas to completion. Christmas, the Incarnation, is all about gifts. Not only the gifts we give and receive between one another, but the incredible gift of the Word made Flesh. On Epiphany we celebrate the arrival of the Wise Men and the three gifts that they bring to the Christ Child – gold, frankincense and myrrh. Jesus receives three gifts that represent His Kingship (the gold), His Priesthood (the frankincense) and His sacrifice (the myrrh).

And here we are today celebrating the Last Supper, some 30 years or so after the visit of those Wise Men, and again we are celebrating three gifts, only this time, Jesus doesn’t receive them, He gives them. And, in fact, they are the greatest gifts ever given. We celebrate tonight God’s gift to us in Jesus Christ, His Son; and His three-fold gift of Christ’s presence among us in the priesthood, in the Eucharist, and in service. At Christmas, three kings, three gifts. And today, the King of Kings and again, three gifts.

Blessed Pope John Paul the Great made this same connection in his Holy Thursday message to priests 10 years ago. He wrote, “Before this extraordinary Eucharistic reality we find ourselves amazed and overwhelmed, so deep is the humility by which God ‘stoops’ in order to unite himself with us! If we feel moved before the Christmas crib, when we contemplate the Incarnation of the Word, what must we feel before the altar where, by the poor hands of the priest, Christ makes his Sacrifice present in time? We can only fall to our knees and silently adore this supreme mystery of faith.”

At that Last Supper so long ago, Jesus instituted the priesthood. It was during this Last Supper that Jesus ordained His first priests – the Apostles. You know, if it weren’t for the first Holy Thursday, we wouldn’t be here tonight on this Holy Thursday. The gift of the priesthood is the unique way in which Jesus has continued to transmit that Divine reality of His message, His love, His real presence through time to us today. We need the priesthood so that Jesus can continue to be present among us baptizing and confirming us into His family, anointing us when we are sick and near death, marrying us when we find the person God has chosen for us to be with, forgiving our sins when we have fallen, making present His Body and Blood in the Eucharist. The priesthood is the instrument, the medium, the person, through which God is truly present in our midst. It is our privilege as priests to be the instruments by which Christ makes Himself present in the Holy Eucharist. It is also our privilege and honor to serve you, God’s people, in Christ’s name, following His example. Especially as I prepare to leave St. Margaret’s in a few weeks, I hope you know what an honor it has been for me to be your priest. I personally thank each of you tonight for the indescribable honor of serving you and for the many ways that you have supported me. As a priest, my simplest prayer is to always serve you, God’s people, faithfully and lovingly.

Of course, supreme among what we celebrate tonight is God’s gift of the Eucharist. And no better night than its own anniversary to celebrate it together. We celebrate it as a memorial, but with a difference. Our Lord said, “Do this in memory of me.” The Greek word for “memory” is anamnesis. “Do this in anamnesis of me.” Anamnesis is a powerful word that means not just to recall, but to revive, not just to remember, but to re-live. Tonight – and at every Eucharist – we do not simply re-enact the Last Supper; we are there; travelling through space and time to that upper room. Jesus said those words once and for all – this is my Body; this is my Blood – and we hear them tonight as though for the first time. What makes the Eucharist so special is that Christ is present. He is really and truly, physically present under the appearance of bread and wine; in the reality of His Body and Blood. What makes the Mass so special is that it makes present the supper and the sacrifice – the Last Supper and Calvary – so that we can enter into the closest possible union with our Lord and offer our lives with Him to the Father. We don’t come to Mass merely to pray to God the Father. We come to be with Christ, to hear Him, to be nourished by Him, to offer ourselves with Him.

Today is the anniversary of that day when Jesus took bread and wine and for the very first time and changed it into His body and Blood. “This is my body given for you…this cup is the new covenant in my blood poured out for you.” These great words were both gift and sacrifice. Jesus in the Eucharist made an offering of Himself, an offering that would be completed the following day on the cross. So, our Mass today and always combines the two – the Supper and the Sacrifice – the night before and the day after. And our Mass doesn’t just bring it to mind, or recall it, or remember it. Our Mass makes it present again. Christ renews this offering in every Mass and invites us to enter into it.

Finally, we celebrate our third gift – the gift of Christ’s example in the washing of the feet; a gift which cannot be separated from the gift of the Eucharist. What an interesting movement we have in the life of Jesus. At the beginning of His mission, Christ took us in Cana from water to wine; now nearing the end of His mission, in that Upper Room, He takes us from wine back to water; the wine of the Last Supper to the water of foot washing. He illustrates in the most dramatic way the inescapable link between Eucharist and service. Eucharist, communion, by necessity should lead us to loving service of one another.

Don’t underestimate the power of washing feet. If you walked the dusty roads of our Lord’s time, without sandals – or even with sandals – your feet would get very dirty and very sore. And the first thing you’d be offered when you’d arrive at a house or an inn would be a basin of water and a towel. But, they wouldn’t wash your feet for you. You’d do that yourself. Foot washing was a very menial task. It was so menial in fact that often even a slave was not expected to wash the feet of his master. The master could do it for himself. This is why Peter is so shocked, “You will never wash my feet,” he said to Jesus, who replied, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” To be a Christian, to be part of Christ, is to have an unbounded, limitless spirit of service; one that will do even the most menial task for the love of Christ; and the love of our brothers and sisters. The modern equivalent of washing feet might be to do things like looking after our ageing parents and grandparents; to be good to our neighbors, especially when there’s trouble or it is difficult; to be kind and tender towards the sick; to be helpful to the handicapped; to be welcoming to the stranger and the homeless; to be generous towards the poor, the marginalized, the needy.

We can, in fact, wash people’s feet without ever taking off their shoes at all. We can have a towel over our shoulder that no one ever actually sees. The point is that we don’t lord our service over anyone. We serve and we love as Jesus loved us; as Jesus loved others. That’s the example – and that’s the challenge. The importance of living the Eucharist in terms of service was emphasized by Jesus when He contemplated the weary feet of His disciples with a towel in one hand and a basin in the other. The more familiar we become with the weariness around us, the better we’ll understand the call of the Eucharist in our lives. “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”

So, I ask you tonight, as Jesus asked so long ago, Will you let me wash your feet? Will you let me, in persona Christi, kneel before you and wash your feet? Will you allow yourself to be served, to receive the loving service of God through this humble action of washing? Will you receive the gifts I have prepared for you?
Jesus gives us these three incredible gifts – the Priesthood, the Eucharist and Service. They are all here for you tonight. Will you accept them from your Lord? Will you let me wash your feet?

If you will, I invite you to come forward now.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Master has need of it.

Today our celebration of Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion begins the great feast of Holy Week – the most sacred week of our Church year. At first glance, today can seem like an odd feast, a conflicted one. Some might remember that before the Second Vatican Council, Palm Sunday was observed one week before Passion Sunday giving people time to savor the echoes of “Hosanna!” from Palm Sunday for a whole week before they are confronted with the bitter cries “Crucify Him!” on Passion Sunday. Since the Council, these two celebrations have been brought together. And so we began this morning by commemorating the Lord’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, joining the people of Jerusalem welcoming Jesus with shouts of “Hosanna!” And now, we turn to the story of the suffering and death - the Passion - of our Lord Jesus Christ in which our “Hosannas” are changed to cries of “Crucify Him!” The dramatic and emotional effect of bringing these two aspects of the reality of Jesus’ life together is at first strange, but I think ultimately helpful.

These two themes of “Hosanna” and “Crucify Him” serve as a prologue to the rest of Holy Week that lies ahead. This is sort of like a movie preview that we see before the feature presentation. We get glimpses of the glory – Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem – and a look at what is to come – His death on the cross. But, like every good movie preview, it doesn’t give away the ending. We have to stick around to see how this all turns out.

Today, I want to focus on the “Hosanna” of our story – the glorious entrance – and I want to look at a character in the story that perhaps we don’t usually think about. We often focus on Jesus as King, or the disciples and their part in the story, or the crowds and how they hailed Jesus. I want to talk about two characters no one ever seems to mention – the donkey and its’ owner. Think about it for a minute. How different would this story be if the owner of the donkey had refused to give it up? Maybe we would have no story of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, at least not in the way Jesus intended.

The point is that no matter how unknown or seemingly inconsequential a person is, no matter how small a role someone plays, every part is crucial in the full unfolding of God’s plan. The Lord needs each one of us just as He needed even a donkey and its owner in His entry to Jerusalem.

Now, a donkey was a very big thing in the time of Jesus. The donkey was the equivalent of a car, a truck and a tractor all in one. People used it to move around and do their shopping, to carry a heavy load, and in cultivating the land. Add to this the fact that this donkey had never been ridden, that means it was brand new and had a very high market value. So, giving up the donkey just because the Lord needed it was a very big sacrifice indeed. It was a generous and heroic act of faith on the part of its owner; even though it seems very simple.

It begs the question of us – do we respond as quickly and as generously when our Master calls for our gifts, our talents and our treasure? We are reminded today that each one of us has got a donkey that our Master needs; each of us has something. Will we give it to Him freely?

The spiritual writer Max Lucado offers a reflection on this Gospel moment. He wrote, “Sometimes I get the impression that God wants me to give him something and sometimes I don’t give it because I don’t know for sure, and then I feel bad because I’ve missed my chance. Other times I know he wants something but I don’t give it because I’m too selfish. And other times, too few times, I hear him and I obey him and feel honored that a gift of mine would be used to carry Jesus to another place. And still other times I wonder if my little deeds today will make a difference. Maybe you have those questions, too. All of us have a donkey. You and I each have something in our lives, which, if given back to God, could, like the donkey, move Jesus and His story further down the road. Maybe you can sing or program a computer or speak Swahili or write a check. Whichever, that’s your donkey. Whichever, your donkey belongs to God. Your gifts are His and the donkey was His.”

My friends, as we enter into yet another great and glorious Holy Week, let us ask for the grace to hold back nothing of ourselves from the Lord, our Master. Let us freely give of our time, our talent and our treasure – our donkey – to bring forth the very presence of God in our world; to help transport Jesus from this place to the many places where people do not yet know Him. Let us be forever in His service.

So, what is your gift, your talent, your treasure? Your Master has need of it.

Have a blessed Holy Week and may God give you peace.

Changing the impossible

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