Tag Archives: God

EPIPHANY 2019

By way of introduction to today’s celebration of the Epiphany, I ask you to recall the name of that once popular wrapping called cellophane, which appears to have taken second place to Saran Wrap.

The “p-h-a-n-e” in cellophane is the same as the “p-h-a-n” in Epiphany — they both mean “to see through” or “to make visible.”

In a word, that’s what we are celebrating today: our coming somehow to see that in the person of this Jesus of Nazareth God is being revealed to the world as never before or since.

With that in mind, let us pray.

 

I once knew a man whom I never heard make any reference to God and who never went to church. But I consistently saw in him qualities of human goodness that could be called only extraordinary, the stuff that saints are made of. Even though there was no sign that he was aware of it, his life was a powerful sermon because it was exactly the kind of joyful, unselfish, simple, charitable behavior that Jesus taught and lived himself. The good man was one of those voices God used to teach me and a lot of other people I know.

It is true that pagans and atheists and heretics are often effective instruments by way of which God’s word reaches us humans. But who are we to dictate how and from whom God’s truth should come to us? Perhaps there are Magi, of a sort, in our own lives whom we have turned away and have not recognized and have condemned or ridiculed out of hand. We called them ”secular” or “pagan” or “radicals” or just plain “crazy.” It never occurred to us, or we could not bring ourselves to allow, that they might have seen and heard God where we did not.

Mary and Joseph apparently welcomed their visitors. And so it should be with us: that we welcome with eager anticipation all who come to us in sincerity and in search of truth, that we remain open to the truth they may be bringing into our lives. With the Spirit of God guiding us, we shall know the Lord better if we simply look and listen.

We must leave to scholars the essential meaning of today’s ancient fable, still revered after so many centuries, even while more & more discerning people recognize it is as precisely that — a wonderful and enduring fable, not to be taken literally. My own limited understanding of it is that it celebrates the truth that Jesus was recognized as the long-hoped-for Messiah even by persons who had no connection with the established religion of the time. The wise men, as they were called, were astrologers who studied the movement of the stars, not the history of God’s revelation to humanity. Their journey to the stable of his birth was not only unorthodox but not even respectable in many people’s eyes. However, so the story goes, they recognized him for who and what he was and paid him the homage reserved for kings.

And then, I suppose we must assume as the logical conclusion of the story, they went back to their own country as missionaries of the Christ. What could they have reported back home except their own deep conviction that in this birth God had entered human history in such a way that humanity would never be the same again.

We’ve got to keep in mind always when reading the Gospels that they are documents of faith — enthusiastic outpourings of the joyful faith of people who had experienced Jesus. They are not biographies or histories. They are human expressions rather than scientific descriptions. We believers have to look beyond the words and details to discover the real message, the truth to which the entire document attests.

In the minds of those who had known him and had witnessed the events of his extraordinary life, there was no doubt that he was indeed the One sent by God to restore human life and dignity. I think you would agree that with all the confusing uncertainties we live with, we often need that reassurance.

Today it’s given to us again by means of a charming story that even little children love hearing.

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FEAST OF JESUS, KING OF THE UNIVERSE, 2018

There was a Jesus, son of Mary and her husband Joseph. They were a Jewish family probably somewhere between downright poor and lower middle class, who lived in Nazareth, a small, undistinguished town, which was a minor subject of the mighty Roman Empire. More & more boldly and frequently and widely these days is it being suggested that he was not the only child of that family, that instead he had brothers and sisters, as the Sacred Scripture says quite unambiguously.

The life of this Jesus was a mixture of the mundane and the spectacular: he grew out of an ordinary boyhood to become a heroic young man, who was a mystery, an enigma, to his family and friends and neighbors. His teachings about life were new and different — revolutionary – and both comforting to some and disturbing to others. His parents were advised to put him away, I suppose into the equivalent of an asylum of some sort, where he could be prevented from doing harm to himself and others.

It was his idea of God, the one whose name no Jew was permitted ever to speak or write, the one he called Father so easily and intimately, that was particularly upsetting to the people and their religious leaders. It was this strange concept that got him into most trouble. They accused him of blasphemy and thought of him as possessed by an evil spirit. He told them that they needed to reform their image of God, who, he insisted, was pure love, infinitely compassionate and merciful. But, he made clear, that would be an almost impossible task for them because their minds were so perverted and wrongly set. So ultraconservative were they regarding their beloved tradition that they could no more accept and contain what he was telling them than an old sack could hold new wine without bursting at its seams.

His crucifixion appeared at first to be the end of a misguided life – this man who had said and done such marvelous and memorable things that more than 2,000 years later they are still repeated and honored and lived by countless persons like you and me today. But the accolades multiplied over the centuries until Jesus of Nazareth, the man who died on the cross of criminals, became the Christ, the Anointed One, the Exalted one – a title and a description that, I suspect, he himself would neither recognize nor appropriate to himself.

And so today we have this title – Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. What can it possibly mean to us? Especially to us who have no experience of a kingdom? Especially to us to whom Jesus has been revealed as a humble servant of God and of the people? Especially to us who have come to believe – because of him — that the primary force of life and good in this vast universe is nothing less, or other than, love?

I think that that is what we are celebrating today – the confession, the proclamation, that we accept him totally and without compromise as the perfect model of human life. The bracelet that reads “What would Jesus do?” says it well. He is our model, our guide. He is the lens through which we see God as he himself did – with no fear, no shame, no uncertainty. With only peace and gratitude and happy expectation of what lies ahead. It’s the different way of living that he asked us to embrace.

There’ve been many good kings and queens in the history of human civilization, but none quite like Jesus, whose extraordinary knowledge of the Mystery of Mysteries that we call God has given us a way of life vastly superior to all others.

TRINITY SUNDAY, 2018

Forty-or-so years ago, a Jesuit priest anthropologist published his study of a pygmy tribe in Africa. He had discovered that one of the chief features of their extraordinary way of life was this: The entire village would arise early from sleep every morning; the women would tend to the children, feed the animals, prepare the day’s meals, and perform other domestic chores. The men would repair or continue constructing the thatched-roof dwellings, hunt and fish, maintain their weapons, prepare firewood, and so on. But all of this for a short time — three or four hours at the most — and then everyone, the men, the women and the children, would spend the rest of the day at play.

There were games for the adults and for the children, games that involved whole families, song, conversation and relaxation. But even more interesting than the enviable imbalance that favored recreation was the theological or religious statement this chosen lifestyle was meant to express — the belief of these people that they were never being more faithful creatures of the Great Spirit than when they were playing, carefree and confident, in God’s presence, “at God’s feet”, as they put it.

Isn’t that a beautiful sentiment? “Primitive” we sophisticates call them while we are at the same time challenged by them and ask if it is possible that their philosophy of life and their idea of God are not in some important ways truer and more sensible than our own.

The Old Testament speaks of Wisdom as a person, a part of God and yet outside of God, playing in God’s sight and finding happiness through contact with the very creatures that she — Wisdom — had fashioned in compliance with God’s loving command.

That said, we can see more quickly and clearly that our ancestors in the Judeo-Christian faith understood that in the Mystery called God there were dialog & conversation, listening & responding & community. And they realized that we humans are “made in the image & likeness of God “. And so it is that we cannot be happy and fulfilled without cultivating those same qualities and dynamics in our personal lives. We are designed and we are destined to find our true selves by constant dialog and interaction with each other, filled with grace and charity and forgiveness.

I suppose it’s the same with you, but I get so relentlessly busy with things I believe have to be done that I don’t always make enough time to be silent in the inner presence of the Spirit of God. I work as if everything depends on me, almost forgetting that God is our generous and powerful provider, the source of our strength. For 60 years I’ve been visiting the Trappist Monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts, in order to reorient myself. There, observing the prayer life of the monks, I renew my intention to keep my priorities in proper order.

Our world is, really as never before in human history, so full of sound and non-stop activity, that we view God as a crutch for times of crisis, a last resort, when we should instead maintain an awareness of God’s minute-by-minute presence within us, always ready to guide us and always loving us. This is how we can best manage our lives and gradually become all that we were created to be for ourselves, for others, and for God.

Today is the Feast of the Trinity — “three Persons in one God”, we were taught, beginning with our infancy. Jesus would not have known what we were talking about, since the doctrine came into being more than 300 years after his life, death, and resurrection. (You won’t find it in the bible.) It was and remains one of the countless efforts we humans make toward understanding God, an impossible task. But what Trinity means at rock bottom is that in God there are love and relationship and conversation and sharing and all the elements that make up community. And we are made in the image and likeness of God.

And that’s why we pray “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

2ND SUNDAY IN LENT, 2018

Two persons I was once helping to prepare for their wedding and the marriage that would follow were explaining to me the status of their religious life. The young man admitted that he wasn’t much of a church-goer and that he was finding it increasingly difficult to relate to his Catholic faith and remain a practicing member of a parish. He went on to describe a time in his life, not very long ago, he said, when he was experiencing real joy, looking forward to Sunday Mass and Communion and faithfully living up to his obligations as a Catholic. He said, with obvious nostalgia, that God seemed so present to him in those years, implying that he did not know how or why things had changed so much for him and that he missed the warmth and beauty of it all.

It sounded to me that he was talking about the happiest years of his life up to that point.

And then he added, “You know, I think about those days a lot. And, even when I’m not going to church (as I am not now) and am having all kinds of doubts about religion, the memory of those days keeps me going and won’t let me give up.”

I listened with intense interest, as you can well imagine, and tried to confirm his hope by asking, “Do you know what you’ve just described to me and your-wife-to-be? I call it a ‘peak experience’, a crystal clear awareness of an important truth so convincing to you, so totally satisfying, that it remains with you even when you are doubting, as you tell me you are now.”

That’s what the three apostles seem to have had with Jesus in the phenomenon so dramatically described in the gospel passage today: a peak experience. He was the carpenter’s son to them, surprisingly knowledgeable, uncommonly good, but still, the man from Galilee, who showed every human frailty that they did — except evil. And then, either in a powerful moment of grace, as the writers of the gospel put it, or by a gradual accumulation of many revealing signs over their years together, they recognized in him the deepest reality of his being as the one who would be called “Son of God”.

Despite this enlightening epiphany, it would not be long before they would doubt and deny him and betray him out of fear for their own lives. They would heatedly disagree about what he had actually said and what he meant by what he said. But the memory of that new and different vision of him would never leave them, no matter what. They would continue trying to understand him and his message more fully and to join their lives with his. And we have learned through hindsight that they succeeded.

Is it not the same with us? Whatever the reason —emotional, physical, spiritual — we sometimes find ourselves with a less than enthusiastic attitude toward God, the church, faith and worship. It can be a time of dryness for us, a time of doubt and lack of confidence that makes us feel as though we were in a dark and depressing place.

Now is the time for us to acknowledge the possibility that we may be there again in the years ahead. So I suggest that this would be a good time for us to recall those occasions when we were absolutely certain that God was very close to us, that God was in was, loving and caring for us and others dear to us — realizations that no one could ever persuade us to deny.

We are not, after all, very different from those privileged apostles, because no less advantage has been granted to us. In our own ways , we have also “seen” God!

2ND SUNDAY OF EASTER, 2016

I expect never to hear of a real-life example of human love more remarkable and inspiring than that of an elderly couple interviewed on TV several years ago.  Their beautiful daughter had been brutally assaulted and then murdered by a young man.  He was arrested and brought to trial.  It was an open & shut case: he was guilty.  The deceased girl’s parents were asked how they felt toward her assailant.  And this gentle, getting-on-in-years couple responded, He is God’s child also, even though what he did to our daughter was horrible beyond words.  We don’t want him to be executed or to suffer the rest of his life. We are praying for him, that he’ll repent of his crime and accept the grace of God in rebuilding his life so that he can help others, no longer hurt them.  (It still gives me a thrill to recall and repeat that.)

If that isn’t a modern version of Jesus’ death on the cross, I don’t know what is.  “Father, forgive them.  They don’t know what they are doing.”  Just imagine what kind of world ours would be if every human being had that generous, loving, forgiving, life-giving attitude toward all others!

But that’s precisely what we said yes to when we decided to become Christians.

It’s possible, you know, that, although we were baptized and well instructed in our faith, some of us, maybe many of us, never did really decide personally to become followers of Jesus.

We learn that we’ve made that decision when we look at someone’s crime or evil act and say, “That’s probably the worst thing this person has ever done; but how much good she must also have accomplished. I pray that she will recover from this terrible decision, make amends for what she has done and move on to a good and unselfishly loving life.”

Against the background of a maze of legal nit-picking, Jesus spoke of only two laws: first, love God, your creator; the second: love everyone else, without exception.  Give extravagantly, he taught us; resolve always to forgive, not merely to punish; reward in excess of merit; let your love go beyond the requirements of justice.

It’s as if God were saying through Jesus, “You are made in my image & likeness.  And I am infinitely more than just; I am loving and merciful.  I am forgetful of your faults and always aware of your marvelous potential.  You are less likely to sense my presence in the good order of a tribunal than you are in the splendid splashes of skies and forests and the bottomless well of a mother’s love!”

The Scriptures tell of signs & wonders the early disciples were performing and observing after Jesus’ resurrection from death.  Among them there surely had to be the “miracles” of persons acting in ways that are certainly not normally human.  They were returning love for hatred, accepting hurts with patience and even cheerfulness, giving without thought to cost, forgiving with no strings attached, and rejoicing in the success of others.

People couldn’t help but notice.

The age of miracles has not passed.

Happy Easter!

BAPTISM OF JESUS 2016

Having enjoyed it so much the first time around, I’m currently reading again a great book by a priest whose theology and life views I’ve admired for decades.  (His name is Daniel Maguire.) Actually it’s light, though very substantial, reading, filled with humor that has me laughing on every other page!  I wrote to thank him for what he’s written.  He resigned from the active ministry of his priesthood many years ago, married, raised a family and continued for a long time to teach at a Catholic university.

Early in the book, he dedicates four pages to 19 major events in his personal and professional life, many of them disappointments and tragedies of one sort or another, including the death of their 10-year-old son. He introduced the list as surprises of life that awaited him; he ends it by saying, “I never saw all that coming.  How I dealt with it, sometimes well, sometimes anything but, is a story full of life with all its spices…and not just a few lessons.  I share it in these pages.”

Did the real Jesus (not the Jesus manufactured by piety and religious imagination over the centuries), did that real Jesus have any idea that his life of loving service would end in rejection and violent death?  I think not.

During those 3 years of his work among the people, when they came flocking to him from all over, listening to every word he spoke, singing his praises, wanting to crown him king, he could never have imagined that he would soon be crucified as though he were a criminal.  It was only when he was very near his death that he saw clearly the handwriting on the wall.

The greatness of Jesus is found in both periods of his life: in the first, when he gave himself totally to God in unselfish service to the people; and in the last, when he did not run away from the terrible ordeal that awaited him.

I think that is what we are honoring today as we remember his Baptism at the age of about 30: that he was committing himself to something largely hidden from his view, trusting that the God he called Father would, in the end, make all things right and happy and beautiful and would provide for him along the way, especially at the most difficult times.

Jesus was saying a firm Yes to both “better” and “worse” and was certain he’d complete the journey successfully because its ultimate outcome lay in the wisdom and love and power of God.

Persons who have experienced deaths of many kinds – the death of someone very close to them, the death of their marriages, the death of physical and mental powers, the death of their fondest hopes and dreams — still have lives to live, commitments to keep, love to share, and faith to practice.  In all of that they are bound to be led beyond anticipated limits, just as Jesus was.

For all of us Christians, the focus of existence here on earth is Baptism, in which the direction and the ultimate meaning of our lives are established, as they were for Jesus.

I wish you happiness and peace and hope on the next lap of your journey!

HOMILY FOR 23RD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR, 2015

I’ve kept this letter in my files for many years, grateful to the person who wrote it, especially as I share it once again today.  The writer is a nurse, and this is what she wrote —

It was a busy morning, about 8:30, when an elderly gentleman came in to the office to have stitches removed from his thumb.  He said he was in a hurry, and had an appointment at 9:00.  I took his vital signs and asked him to sit, knowing that it would be over an hour before the doctor could see him. 

I saw him looking at his watch and decided I would evaluate his wound.  On exam, it appeared to be well healed, so I talked to one of the doctors and got the needed supplies to remove his sutures and redress his wound. 

I asked the man if he had another doctor’s appointment that morning.  He said no but that he needed to go to the nursing home to eat breakfast with his wife.  I inquired about her health.  He told me she had been there for a while and that she was a victim of Alzheimer’s disease. 

I asked if she would be upset if he arrived a bit late.  He said she no longer knew who he was and that she had not recognized him for the past five years.  I was surprised and asked him, “And you still go every morning, even though she doesn’t know who you are?” 

He smiled as he patted my hand and said, “She doesn’t know me, but I still know who she is.” 

I had to hold back tears as he left; I had goose bumps on my arm.  I thought, “That’s the kind of love I want in my life.” 

True love is an acceptance of all that is, has been, will be, and will not be. 

The happiest people don’t necessarily have the best of everything; they just make the best of everything they have. 

Life isn’t about how to survive the storm, but how to dance in the rain.

I think I need not explain to you why I keep that letter and read it every once in a while to myself or to others.

If love is the primary and most powerful force in the world, and if God is love, then the first and overriding task of our lives is to love ever more generously, unselfishly, purely and joyfully.

That’s what personal relationship and our Christian religion are essentially about.

Personal relationship is not merely an agreement or a contract; it is a bonding of love.

Our Christian religion is not merely a system of rules and rituals designed to keep us on the straight & narrow so that when we die we qualify for entrance into an imaginary place called heaven.  It is, rather, a lived celebration of the presence of God in us now and in everyone and everything that surrounds us.

That’s why we are here this very hour and doing what we are doing.

That’s what we are pledging again to be and to do when we receive Jesus in the sacrament of Eucharist and when this ancient ritual called the Mass has ended.

My poor words are simply commentary.  The real homily today is YOU and all the self-sacrificing, noble, patient, beautiful things you have done for the sake of others.  May your lives continue to be filled with them because, no matter the cost, the results are always so much greater!