5TH SUNDAY OF EASTER 2017

As my concept of God was widening many years ago, I began to say that there are many paths to God. As true as I believe that to be, I don’t say it anymore; I have come to see, instead, that there are many paths with God. Who would ever deny that the late Mahatma Gandhi or the present Dalai Lama or the Orthodox Jew across the street are persons very much in touch with that reality we call God? We Catholics may regard ourselves as especially fortunate because we have been born into, or have come to, the Christian faith; but obviously that is not possible for all people, who therefore know the incomprehensible God in ways different from ours.

But, Jesus said that there is no other name on earth by which we are saved except his and that there is only one path to God, whom he called Father, and that path is himself. That appears at first to be an unresolvable contradiction to what you just heard me say; but actually it has everything to do with how literally we interpret the scriptures. Fundamentalists, both Catholic and Protestant, take those words attributed to Jesus at their face value and insist that only those who follow them literally will achieve eternal life; all others are damned to eternal punishment. Others of us say that Jesus’ words can be understood for their true and intended meaning only in the context of his entire life and message, and that therefore adjustments have to be made to uncover the truth.

The responsibility of the Christian faith community is not as easy as accepting lock, stock, and barrel every word found in the Scriptures, but to use our intelligence—our power to reason, our imaginations, our memories—in the sometimes hard work of ferreting out the real truth of what has been handed down to us.

There is one such adjustment we all make without hesitation or debate: we hear Jesus say that he is the vine and we are the branches and we recognize immediately that he is using a metaphor, the meaning of which we grasp at once. That’s the way it is in all human speaking and writing and thinking: we shift back & forth between the literal and the figurative. So did Jesus and those who originally wrote about him.

I assume that Jesus understood that his message could not possibly reach the whole world during his lifetime or for centuries beyond. But he knew that all human beings are God’s beloved creatures, and he could never have thought or taught that any one of them would perish through no fault of his or her own. Truth be told, I am among those who hold that no one, no serial killer or murderous dictator, goes to everlasting torture. To those who would have the good fortune of knowing and following him Jesus made an attractive promise: that he himself would nourish them along the way of life, that they would not be left to depend only on their own limited resources.

Many times in my past it was that lifeline that I needed, and the passage of time has shown again and again that it did not fail. The goal of our prayer life, whether private or communal, is to respond to the invitation, “Remain in me as I remain in you.”

Life doesn’t get any more secure than that!

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Today is Mother’s Day, a time set aside by our grateful nation to honor and thank and sincerely praise all those good women who said yes to life by conceiving and bearing and raising children.

How easily those words trip off the tongue, but how much they signify – conceiving, bearing, raising! Our mothers’ commitment was not for a moment of courageous action but for a lifetime of daily efforts and generous love and personal sacrifices that created the favorable circumstances in which their beloved offspring could become their best possible selves.

There are no words in the English or any other language that can even begin to measure up to the dimensions of their gift to us. We are left with the feeble, but most heartfelt, words of a traditional blessing: Happy Mother’s Day!

Fourth Sunday of Easter, 2017

Today, when a free society like ours puts so much stress on personal independence and resourcefulness, Jesus’ reference to his followers as “sheep” may be very jarring to some of them. I think that fewer and fewer people want to look upon themselves as sheep — at least not if that means being mindless followers.

And yet it’s obvious that he doesn’t regard the title as being at all demeaning to us. So what did he have in mind by choosing such a term?

I’ve always assumed it was the strong bond that exists between the sheep and their shepherd. He knows them individually by name, loves them tenderly, cares for them as he cares for himself. He identifies them also by the unique, sometimes odd or funny, characteristics they display.

In return, the sheep trust and in their own way love the shepherd. They feel secure in his presence and somehow know that their good is his primary concern. There is no question here of manipulation or control, no surrendering of right or freedom. It is, rather, the very person of the shepherd in whom the sheep find their fullest selves. They are happier, healthier and more alive when he is there. Actually, they would be incomplete without the love they exchange with him.

I believe that is what Jesus is stressing above all in this homely analogy he uses: that because there are no limits to the loving concern of the shepherd for the sheep, there are no limits to the depth of life the sheep can achieve.

We should expect, I’d say, that in an age of unprecedented exploration like our own, we would find ourselves going not only outward and upward but inward, too. And that is precisely what’s happening. The same civilization that reaches out into the strange and uncharted realms of space looks into itself as well and into the fascinating mystery of the human person. Prayer movements, that seem to be increasing in number and membership today, center both on the corporate person of the community and the private person of the individual. All kinds of people, from every walk of life imaginable, are reporting finding up-to-now unrealized strength and peace by entering prayerfully into themselves in regular meditation with others.

The Good Shepherd offers us a friendship, a relationship, so deep and personal that in it we can resolve life’s most distressing problems and discover what good can and will come from them. No one is really free who feels trapped by the futility of life’s tragic happenings. But the Good Shepherd, having experienced himself the life-death-life continuum has earned the authority to reassure us that the patience and perseverance with which we carry our crosses lead us, invariably, to a new sharing in the love and life of God.

We profess Jesus, the Good Shepherd, to be the gateway to life. We have only to work at knowing him better by listening to the words he has spoken, by being present to him in silent expectation, and by learning to think about, and to interpret, life as he does. He calls us, not to conformity and slavery, but to freedom and unfettered life!

3RD SUNDAY OF EASTER, 2017

When you sit at a restaurant table and the waiter brings a basket of bread, precut but not all the way through, and the basket gets passed from person to person, you are literally breaking bread together. Ancient cultures — and many still today — weren’t the least bit squeamish about the dirt the bread picked up as it made its way from hand to hand. And, of course, they had no idea about bacteria or any other invisible enemies.

Bread to them was life — figurative and literal life. As they ate from the same loaf, they were keenly aware that they were feeding on a common source of life. That life made them one people and symbolized their unity. With food of all kinds available to us day & night and wherever we go, the sense of a family meal as a life source is greatly diminished. On the other hand, for our ancestors it played a major role in their identity as a people.

We heard in today’s gospel passage that after Jesus had risen from the dead the disciples “knew him in the breaking of the bread.” As helpful and enlightening as all the instruction they were getting from this apparent stranger along the way must have been, within the context of the story as we know it, that intellectual approach was not enough to make those men realize that the one they were conversing with was actually Jesus. It was their friend and teacher who had been crucified, the Jesus who was said to be alive but whom they had not yet seen — or so they thought.

But when they sat down to eat with him, when they broke bread with this stranger, the process of discovery was complete: their eyes were opened and they recognized him.

But wouldn’t those who believe that Jesus rose physically from death ask, Wait a minute: you mean they did not immediately recognize his face, his voice, his accent, his laugh, the message in the instruction they were getting from him?

My guess is that what we have been left with is a timeless, beautiful, highly symbolic story whose job it is to reveal to all of us a very significant layer of meaning in this Jesus event that we might otherwise have failed to appreciate.

What we are hearing is a gift to us — a brilliantly conceived story of embellishment and clarification.

The careful instruction they had received from him during their long walk together was not sufficient for what he had in mind. It had to be accompanied by another kind of experience, an experience of deep, personal fellowship in that best understood setting of a meal — the sharing of life from a common source.

Put the two together and we have sacrament. The sacrament of Eucharist. The earliest Christians called the Mass the “breaking of bread.” It had two basic parts: words of scripture, both ancient and contemporary; and the action involving the bread & wine.

Let’s keep in mind that this meal event takes place in the course of a journey. What could that imply but the journey that you and I are on? We are walking through life with Jesus, conversing all the way, stopping occasionally to eat or to rest, becoming more familiar with him with each shared step.

There is no fixed roadmap so complete that it can serve as guide in all the circumstances of our lives. But we have more than that: we walk with the Risen Jesus every step, every minute of the unpredictable way. If we relate to him honestly, openly, frankly, we will get from him, especially in the breaking of the bread, the most satisfying answers.

SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER, 2017

The followers of Jesus had come to realize his irreplaceable uniqueness; upon his death they cried out with that immortal lament, “To whom shall we turn now, Lord? You alone have the words of eternal life.” Even though they were somehow convinced that he was alive and living among them, they must have felt his physical absence terribly.

His presence had brought them courage, inspiration, wisdom, hope and the joy of life. But with his death they were on their own — or so they thought — like persons who had briefly lived in a dream world and had now awakened to find themselves as weak and frightened and human as ever before.

Without him around to turn to, there were some serious difficulties. We can picture them saying, “What did he mean when he said so & so?” ‘“Does anyone remember what his response was when we asked him…?” Among the apostles — the bishops of the infant church — there were disagreements. The head of them all, Peter, had, for example, not quite understood that the old law of their beloved Jewish religion had been supplanted by a new law and that many of its age-old requirements could no longer be in force.

There was a baptism now and the whole law was summed up in the person of Jesus. Paul emphasized that the followers of Jesus are children of the promise, not of the law, and the promise is fulfilled, it is personified, in the Risen Jesus. Paul had some misconceptions of his own too and, like the others, he wasn’t always ready to give in to the majority opinion.

But Jesus wasn’t there to be consulted. So the leaders of this unprecedented religious venture had next to learn that it was henceforth in Eucharist that they would find strength and wisdom and truth that would make them and keep them one. Admission to that fellowship had one basic requirement: care for one’s fellow human beings. The invitation to belong was extended to men and women, not to angels. One accepted the invitation with one’s own sinfulness and weaknesses — and entered the faith community in an atmosphere of intellectual honesty and, most important of all, a sincere concern for the welfare of others.

At the parting meal he shared with them, that Last Supper, he gave a new meaning to bread and wine. The bread, he said, was himself, who loved them beyond their comprehension; the wine, he said, was himself poured out in the fullest gesture of friendship and love. From now on, he said, you do this in memory of me. And know that when you do I am with you, just as I am now, to renew with you the eternal covenant sealed in my blood.

In many respects, things haven’t changed much over the past 20 centuries. The same Jesus who loved his first followers just as they were loves us just as we are. He demands of us no more or less than he did of them. We don’t have the comfort of his abiding physical presence anymore than they did. We don’t always respond to others with generous concern, and neither did they. Often we find each other’s points of view threatening and disturbing and just like our ancestors in the faith we too fail to distinguish between the mind and the heart of our sisters and brothers.

To the likes of us is given the Eucharist, the celebration and the assurance of the presence of Jesus among us. What that means is simply that in the person of Jesus we are embraced by the unconditional love that is God. The Eucharist, the Mass, commands only what it presupposes: that we care for one another without exception.

EASTER, 2017

When we were toddlers, our fathers clutched us in their big hands and tossed us upwards so that we nearly touched the ceiling. They let us go for that exhilarating, frightening fraction of a second and then quickly caught us while our faces still registered the playful terror we had experienced. Without being able to name it, we knew then the reality of death and the grace of salvation. We have lived with that awareness all the days of our lives. Of course, we made peace with our fragility, our mortality, to the extent that most of the time we’ve not been conscious of it; we have shoved it back into the remotest recesses of our minds. We make our daily choices, good and bad, as if we were here to stay or as if, at least, we can for a long time enjoy what we build or acquire. Occasionally we are reminded that Daddy rescued us from that mortal enemy that he so bravely teased and tempted. We know it has always been there, lurking, waiting, never satisfied, and that it is there now.

But today we celebrate! It is not a last meal we partake of, like doomed prisoners granted a final fling. We celebrate a triumph staggering in its significance. No mere hope or wish has called us here; only a fact of faith can justify an assembly like this one: a man has faced death uniquely and has conquered it. He has robbed it of its power. He has rendered it forever incapable of claiming us. Jesus has died. Jesus is risen. Jesus will come again.

In thousands of parishes around the world adults who have faithfully prepared for entrance into the church were baptized at the vigil liturgy last night. The abbreviated pouring of water over their heads took the place of the total immersion that once was practiced and still is in many Catholic and other Christian churches. The candidates’ going down into water that can kill is an anticipation of death, an acknowledgment of the present reality of death and a personal encounter with it. The baptized dare to do that only because they know that Jesus has been there before us, has been to the realm of death and has defeated the enemy. Our going there is not a taunt or a flirtation; it’s not even a boast. It is a claim that is meant to set the direction of our entire earthly life: death has no lasting power over us. We are to live freely, joyfully, confidently, with our hearts turned always toward the life that awaits us in death, even as we invest enthusiastically in the present world, God’s gift to us now.

So what if there really is a God? And what if God is love? And what if love simply had to satisfy this most fundamental yearning of ours — the appetite for life itself? And what if God’s presence among us became so obvious, so recognized and acknowledged in this man Jesus that we could somehow participate in our own rescue? What if through Jesus God lived our life and died our death and gave new meaning, even a new identity to both? Wouldn’t that be something??

Happy Easter!

5th Sunday in Lent, 2017

A famous French bishop of the 17th century wrote, “Human beings are as quick to bury thoughts of death as they are to bury the dead.” I think that’s true. But not so of the Christian churches: they stand out as realists and speak of death without hesitation or embarrassment.

In the gospel passage proclaimed today, we heard a familiar story of death.

In it we hear Jesus calling his friend Lazarus back from death to the same life he had been living since his birth. But later on, so we believe, Jesus himself was called out of death by God to an entirely different and radically superior order of life — a life of total union with God. This “resurrection” of his was really an act of creation by God, which appears to be the reason that our celebration of the Easter Vigil includes excerpts from the creation account in the Book of Genesis.

Are we not to understand that just as God created the universe in a fantastic burst of energy that continues to evolve in our own day, so was Jesus’ resurrection an even more astonishing creation of energy which is immune to death and corruption?

The world thinks of death as the end — and mourns it. Christians believe that death is the new and eternal beginning — and they celebrate it.

What do we suspect happens after death? The imagination of most religious people goes to thoughts of heaven or the beatific vision. Why not instead simply think of God, the mysterious reality that has brought us into existence, that loves us wildly, unconditionally, and welcomes us beyond our inevitable death into new life of perfect union with God?

If you were to ask me what my own personal feelings are toward my coming inevitable death, I would tell you that, on the one hand, I feel sad at having to leave the only life I’ve ever known and all the good people I’ve shared it with. On the other hand, I would tell you I am excited about what I shall discover on the other side of death. I have always been curious about the secrets of the universe — is space limited or infinite? How does light travel so fast? Who — or what — is God? How did human language come into existence? What is it like to live in unconditional, perfect love? What will I be when all the limitations I possess are taken away and I blossom into the full person I was created to be?

St. Paul, whetting our appetites for the life to come, said that what God has prepared for us has never even entered the human imagination!

That said, I’d have to admit that I do have some concern over the manner in which I will die. Not, I hope, as the result of a long and painful illness. Not in the rubble under a bombed building or in a fiery crash. But I’ve never brooded over that because I know I can and must trust that the loving God who has sustained me all these years will also sustain me in the manner of my dying.

Joseph Sittler, a Lutheran pastor, now gone home to God, wrote some years ago, “What life behind death might be, I have no notion. The only life I know is the finite one that I live before dying. Something continues, but what that will be I’m perfectly willing to leave in the hands of the Originator.” (He spelled that word Originator with a capital O.)

Simone Weil, mystic and scholar, wrote, “It is not my business to think about myself. It is my business to think about God. It is for God to think about me.”

And best of all, Jesus: “I am the resurrection and the life.”

4TH SUNDAY IN LENT, 2017

If you are familiar with my homilies of the past months or of the past several years, there’ll be no surprise in my telling you that I am convinced that the experiences of these biblical persons we hear about in every Sunday Mass were no different from our own with regard to God’s involvement in our human lives.

I do not believe that they heard clear, verbal commands anymore than we do. Their knowledge of God was, just like our own, that of faith and trust in an unseen, unheard God. The main reason we honor and revere them is that, in the most trying situations, they lived by faith in that invisible, inaudible God.

And we can be sure, by the way, that it was exactly the same for Mary and Joseph and the apostles and early disciples — no matter the literary liberties the sacred authors used in their writings. These were persons of very strong faith. They’d hardly be worthy of our admiration and imitation if all they had to do was take verbal directions from mysterious inner voices and follow them step by step. Their greatness, instead, was in their believing when they could not see, could not hear, the divine presence. They managed, somehow, to trust a God who would reach out to them in the most subtle ways, who would be in and around them, but perceived only through the lens of faith, trust, and belief.

Have you ever tried to explain to anyone why you believe in God? And do you know why that’s so hard to do? It’s because we can’t, and we don’t, embrace God; quite the contrary, it is God who embraces us. We can’t comprehend the mystery of God’s presence in our lives. God is with us like the air we breathe so as to remain alive, the atmosphere that sustains us simply by our inhaling it. Maybe that’s why one of the most ancient symbols of God’s presence to humanity is the cloud.

Jesus’ encounter with the blind man, which we heard in today’s gospel excerpt, ends in an almost ominous way. He says to the devious Pharisees: If you were really blind, you’d be blameless; but since you claim that you see, when actually you have made yourselves blind and deaf to the God who lives within you, you live in sin.

If we’re willing to let the lesson sink in and think about it, we recognize at first that it contains a disturbing question, one we may rather not consider. The question is, is it possible that with all our busyness, even our admirable, constructive activity, we remain, at least partly, blind and deaf to the Creative Spirit?

If Lent is making any inroads into our lives, has it at least been a time during which we have tried to achieve an inner stillness in which we have given God the chance to speak to us? Are we becoming more open to the wisdom and insight that can come only as the gift of God? Do we want our love to be deeper, nobler, more beautiful and creative? Do we want to know better what we should be doing?

Not even God can put all that, and more, into a mind and heart that are shut tight.