12TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME 2017

Jesus’ words always strike home and are remembered because they are so consistent with our human nature. He says things that people understand from their own experience of life. The joy of finding something long lost or misplaced, the sadness of a loved one’s death, the sight of a sunrise or a beautiful baby — no need for words of explanation; they are self-explanatory and universally understood.

In today’s Gospel passage Jesus speaks about fear, as normal a human response as any other we can name. But he says we are not to fear, which seems like an impossibility. I don’t think we can be blamed for asking how we can keep from being afraid — of someone, for example, who is about to do us bodily harm. But in the context of his whole teaching, that could not have been what he meant. Of course he knew that such a reaction of fear is a natural and necessary reflex to serious dangers that threaten us. It’s really our first defense that calls into play all our life-preserving energies.

My take on this statement of his is that he is reminding us that the greatest mystery of our lives is that we are connected to our Creator, the sustainer of our lives, living and active within us always. He goes on: as long as we remain aware of that union we are strong beyond our ordinary powers. It is when we allow ourselves to grow weak in that faith, even to the point of practical denial, that we have reason to be afraid.

Jesus reminds us of how intimately the Father — his affectionate name for God — knows every one of us. He says that the Father can identify each of us down to the last detail, the last cell of our bodies.

This is a clue to what empowered Jesus, what kept him going despite the tremendous odds he faced and the frequent signs that his mission was not going well at all. The religious and civil authorities were opposing him, using every device at their disposal to stop him and to turn his followers away from him. How many sleepless nights did he endure, worrying about how things would go tomorrow? And then the threat of being murdered.

What empowered him, what kept him going, was that he knew himself and the God who lived with and in him always.

“Identity crisis” has been one of the fashionable ills of our age. If one lives chronically victimized by fear, it is possible that that person doesn’t know who he or she really is. Whether it’s a general fear of the unknown future, a fear of death, fear of loneliness, fear of one’s own inadequacies — whatever form it may take — there’s simply more to human life and to the human person than that.

We are known and loved and cared for by the one and only God personally, directly, constantly. That’s who we are. That’s what Jesus experienced and spoke about over and over again.

So, fear is necessary and unavoidable and often very helpful, but it is meant to be tempered by the simple and profound realization of God-With-Us.

We are not talking about a gimmick that can be turned on and off. It is rather a way of life that involves deep reflection and a kind of surrender that is possible only to the genuinely and sincerely prayerful person.

We have to pray for each other that this may be the attainment of all.

CORPUS CHRISTI, 2017

Jesus must have known what sensitivities he’d be trampling on whenever he spoke of giving his flesh to be eaten and his blood to be drunk. Not only did those words unavoidably suggest cannibalism; but they also stood in flagrant contradiction to the centuries-old condemnation of any such practice by the sacred law of Moses.

The Jews were convinced that they were divinely destined to be different in their moral values — different from all other tribes and nations around them. Therefore, they could have no part in the abominations that were customary among other peoples.

Eating non-kosher meat and drinking blood were two practices that were associated with pagan worship and expressly forbidden by the Mosaic law. Faithfully observant Jew that Jesus was, he knew full well what binding prohibitions these were in the religion he had practiced all his life. We can only imagine, then, how shocking and revolting it was to his fellow Jews to hear of his intention to give them his flesh to eat and his blood to drink. This was deeply disturbing to them, not only because it sounded like cannibalism, but also because it was a bold and unacceptable affront to the most sacred law of the prophet Moses.

This wasn’t the first or the last time that Jesus knowingly upset his followers and risked losing many of them — risked losing his own life as well. He was using powerful expressions that would sear and burn, that would cause debate and division. He was making unforgettable proclamations of a message so shattering in its radical newness as to be never surpassed. He was initiating a whole new order of life, a new relationship between the human race and God.

By choosing, as he did, the familiar images of eating and drinking when he spoke about the relationship between himself and us, Jesus was calling our attention to some vital components of human life. First was that most fundamental of all desires, simply to stay alive and to keep on living. The second was hunger — physical hunger for food, the hunger for love and unity and happiness and pleasure. And third, the hunger to fulfill our nature, our individual personhood — “to be someone” and all that we can be, all that we want to be.

Jesus concludes his thus-far troubling lesson by saying that we can fully satisfy all our hungers, all our desires, through him. He claims to be our total food, our life-giver and sustainer. To know him, to receive him eagerly into our lives as the complete food that satisfies every honorable hunger, is to enjoy a relationship with God of a kind never before attainable.

The bread and wine of Eucharist are appropriate symbols for the sacrament, of which unity is a major theme. The bread is made of countless grains of wheat, no two exactly alike, yet forming one whole loaf. It is broken, as we are so often by the cares of our lives. The wine begins with the crushing of grapes, as we are crushed by the burdens we inevitably carry. Jesus promises to heal us, to make our worrying unnecessary, if we feed on him in faith and trust. He calls us, different as we are from each other, to become harmoniously one in our families and communities, our cities, our world. Eat of me, he says, and, I promise you, you will be one.

We must admit that we barely understand and so little appreciate what it is we are invited to accept in Eucharistic Communion. But for more than 2,000 years Christians have found God, themselves and each other in the mystery that lies at the heart of it. It just may be that we need to give a bit more thought to what we are doing — or to what he is doing.

TRINITY SUNDAY 2017

Had you lived in Jesus’ day and asked him if he was the second person of the Blessed Trinity, I think he would not have understood the question, much less been able to make answer. The concept of the Trinity – three persons in one God – took shape some 400 years after his death and resurrection.

But what are we to say then about the rather clear reference to Trinity that Jesus himself seems to be making in these words that are attributed to him, “…baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit?” Father Joseph Nolan, liturgical scholar from Boston College in Massachusetts (and an old friend and colleague of mine, by the way), writes:

“…this is not a transcript of Jesus’ words …, but a reflection of the early church, baptizing and teaching in his name. The words reflect the belief that God… is never far from us or from our history.”

What appears to have happened is that the early Christians were gradually coming to terms with the elements that would eventually develop into our familiar doctrine of the Trinity. What does it mean?

One way to look at it is this: God is not simply one in the sense of being alone and without relationship or conversation or sharing or love. Virtually all cultures have imagined the Creator to be powerful, distant, jealous, unpredictable, competitive, etc. Jesus, on the contrary, speaks of God as compassionate, loving, forgiving, gentle, and as best characterized by the term “Abba,” which is translated as “Daddy.” The conclusion his followers came to was that the very nature and essence of God are loving relationship.

Another dear friend of mine, Australian theologian and author Michael Morwood says that when we die, we die into the love that is God.

In those first four centuries of Christian theological development, the church began to teach that the love between the Father and the Son is so intense that it overflows into yet another person, a third person, the Holy Spirit, and continues to overflow into the creation of the vast universe of which we are a part. The reasoning was that this is the nature of all love, human and divine: it yearns to share, to give & receive, to create beyond itself. And thus came about the notion of the Trinity.

Consider this pregnant statement from a man who is both a priest and a scientist. His name is Father Denis Edwards; he is the author of The God of Evolution: A Trinitarian Theology –

“The God of trinitarian theology is a God of mutual and equal relations. When such a God creates a universe, it is not surprising that it turns out to be a radically relational and interdependent one. When life unfolds through the process of evolution, it emerges in patterns of interconnectedness and interdependence that ‘fit’ with the way God is.”

Scientists are increasingly heard these days celebrating the fact that the entire universe is relational in nature at its core, each tiniest part and particle connected interdependently with all other parts, down to and beyond even microscopic bacteria.

To be responsible creatures of our Trinitarian God, we must put the relationships in our lives above all else. “Trinity” is a fundamental statement about the Creator and about us. We are the expression of God’s overflowing, eternal, intense love.

We mustn’t allow Trinity to be a ho-hum theological proposition or to be trivialized with demonstrations involving three-leaf clovers or three candle flames blended into one. It must be allowed, instead, to challenge and direct us to be what we are created to be: persons who relate in a life-giving, mutually supportive way to the planet, to the entire universe, to all other persons without discrimination of any kind, and to our very own selves, because we are among the fantastic results of God’s labor of love.

PENTECOST, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Pentecost to all!

7TH SUNDAY OF EASTER 2017

Our technological achievements are not evil, as some extremists say they are. Pope Pius XII, back in the mid-1950s, when I was in seminary, said that modern technology is a tool of the Spirit of God that had the potential to bring the peoples of the world together in mutual respect and love as never before. Well, that potential still exists; it’s not the machines and the technology that get in the way, it’s we humans.

Modern marvels, from iPhones to supersonic jets, deliver, of course, convenience, pleasure, comfort; but inner peace and deep down joy they cannot possibly give us. No machine, however sophisticated it may be, can ever bring two hearts together. Nothing that is not spiritual (and I don’t mean only religious) can bring whole peoples together. No house, however luxurious, can unite a family or strengthen a marriage.

What Jesus shared with us was his awareness that we can reach unity and lasting peace only when they are based on an active, intentional attachment to the God who lives within each of us – only when we open our minds and hearts to God’s wisdom and God’s love. We experience true peace and unity by becoming contemplatives who are also active in the world.

I heard a TV talk show host say that, one evening when everything was set up for an interview, he looked around for his celebrity guest and saw him standing several yards away, leaning on a camera, his head resting in the crook of his arm, his eyes closed. After several seconds the guest moved up to the set and took his seat at the table just in time for the interview to begin. The host asked him after the taping what he was doing for that short time, and the man answered, “I was praying.”

Seeking the wisdom of God, who lives within us, can be as simple as that. Bishop Fulton Sheen said that whenever he was about to converse with someone who had come to him for counsel he always paused for a minute or two to open his mind & heart to direction by the Spirit of God.

When we listen eagerly to God, as God’s word comes to us in worship, in prayer, in moments of silence, we become more & more disposed to listening to each other as well, because we learn to expect God’s message there, too. There is never a time or a circumstance in which dialog with God is not readily available. Driving alone to give a retreat in Chicago some years ago I found it easy to commune with the Creator both in nature and in the many interesting people I met along the way, whose stories of love and courage and generous service revealed the presence of God to me. In my home or in someone else’s, at the table, in my comings & goings, there is never a doubt in my mind that God is there more completely than I am.

The Christian church began with controversy and confrontation at every level of its early organization. It’s too bad that today uniformity is so overstressed. It’s not our differences that tear us apart; quite the opposite: diversity, even in matters of faith, can be a help toward unity. It keeps us thinking and probing and dialoguing in the effort to get closer to God’s truth.

It’s when we are not paying sufficient attention to the source of our life that we drift farther and farther apart from each other. That must be why Jesus stressed what he did in those last days of his earthly life: that we follow his example of listening to God always so that we would have increasingly more life to share with those we love – and those we still don’t love.

ASCENSION 2017

Our ancestors concocted wonderful and enduring stories about the mysteries of faith, taking them from what they saw around them. For example, they marveled at how a potter makes a beautiful vase out of a lump of clay, and they said “That’s how God made us!” The facts were wrong, but the message was right: that God is the creator of all that is, and that human beings were created to resemble that God in ways not possible for any other creature.

It is the meaning of what they thought and said and wrote that counts, not what facts it contains or doesn’t contain. They didn’t have access to those facts, as we do today. But fundamentalists even now insist that the Bible can make no error of any kind, and they calculate, therefore, that the universe is only 6,000 years old – while solid science tells us that the universe is some 15 billion years old!

What is written in the Bible about the feast we are celebrating today is a significant case in point. Consider that, of the four gospel authors and St. Paul, out of those five, Luke is the only one who has left us with a step-by-step account of the events of Jesus’ life, death, Resurrection, and Ascension. Nowhere else in the Bible will you find the purported “facts” that he offers. John bunches up the Resurrection of Jesus, his Ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples into one brief day. Mark and Matthew make no mention of an Ascension; they tell only of Jesus’ Resurrection. And Paul, the first New Testament writer – before Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — treats the two events, Resurrection and Ascension, as if they were one and the same.

So, we’re not going to get much in the way of factual reliability from those five! But who should care about a little contradiction here & there? Like a good spice, it makes the story tastier!

It is the meaning of what is passed on that is the important thing, not whether or not it is historically or scientifically accurate. The scriptures, let us say again & again, are not history books; they are not biographies; they are expressions of faith.

There’s a message for us in these Ascension accounts and references; namely, that we who have heard and accepted Jesus as the ultimate life-giver, the ultimate expression of the mystery that we call God, are called, not only to believe, but to imitate! We are to carry on what he began: a ministry of love, healing, forgiveness, and peacemaking. We are to do that, not depending on our limited human resources alone, but on the Divine Spirit whom God would share with us always. The story of his “Ascension,” even though it may not have been the lifting of his living body skyward, implies that he is with God in a total union of the most intense love and that we are here to be him to others by allowing the Spirit that worked through him to work through us.

He has left us — only to be with us always!

6TH SUNDAY OF EASTER, 2017

In Francis’ first homily as pope four years ago, he said, “Don’t be afraid to love. Don’t be afraid to be tender.” Can you imagine a simpler, more basic message than that? And from one of the world’s greatest leaders, whose Jesuit education alone marks him as an intellectual of high standing?

But the counsel he gave us in that short homily encourages us to believe that the power to transform our dangerously troubled world lies, not with the leaders of states and kingdoms, but with us. The world will change for the better, not by command of a president, a prince, or a parliament, but by the little acts and the little words of love and tenderness that we, the people, are capable of giving to others all day long, every day. Sounds too basic to be true, I know, but it is true. Jesus said so, Pope Francis said so.

It’s a cellular process – person to person — that Jesus himself very much believed in and practiced. I recall in that connection a funeral I presided over several years ago. It was for two sisters, Eileen and Jayne, siblings and also members of the same religious community, the Sisters of the Presentation. They had died together in a car crash. The younger one, Jayne, had sent me her written reflections on life, love, God, the Church – some of which I used at her funeral Mass. One of her ideas was that Jesus never intended to establish a new religion, a “church”, according to our understanding of the word. No, she wrote, Jesus simply started a person-to-person movement – one person influencing, touching, another with a word or a gesture of love – even a thought or a prayer. I quote from her now. She wrote —

Jesus began his mission with friendship, not only because it is powerful but also because it is hopeful. It is the key, the only key, that can unlock the door to a worthwhile future in love. Jesus saw the truth of that twenty centuries ago. Instead of organizing institutions, he started a movement based on friendship, on love. That is the only solution to the problems of the human heart. People can live together under almost any conditions if they are friends, if they are in love.

In our own time we have seen the murderous destruction that fanatical members of other religions have done, claiming that they were carrying out the will of God. But aren’t they doing what George Washington and Abraham Lincoln did — praying and then acting on the direction they feel they have been given?

No, absolutely not. Why? Because Jesus says, “Those who love me will keep my word.” Jesus situates his teachings about the Spirit in the context of love. In other words, the key — the lens — that reveals the true word of God to anyone is love. It is impossible that those whose hearts are filled with hatred and evil intentions toward others can recognize what God would have them do. Such persons are morally and spiritually blind. It is only when love is the primary driving force that anyone can discern and yield to the “will of God.” And only when love motivates can human beings enter into sincere dialog with one another and together make progress toward better life for all.

Don’t be afraid to love, Pope Francis says. Don’t be afraid to be tender.