Tag Archives: Jesus

TRANSFIGURATION, 2017

Transfigurazione_(Raffaello)_September_2015-1a

A priest in my home diocese was assigned many years ago to the church in which I was pastor. Everyone loved him for his natural goodness, his humility, his generosity. To this day, I respect him highly and think of him as a good and loving priest after the heart of Jesus. When he became a pastor himself many years later, the bishop sent him a young priest assistant. However, that young man was ultra-conservative and from his very first day there was troubled by what he was seeing and hearing in the pastor’s theology and ministry.

At one Sunday Mass, at which my friend was presiding and preaching, the assistant barged into the sanctuary, raised his hands and shouted to the congregation, “Don’t listen to this man! He is not giving you the Gospel of Jesus; he is giving you his own gospel, his own opinions, and you must not accept them!”

Of course, that very week the young priest was removed from the parish, and what has happened to him since I do not know in detail.

But why, you may be thinking right now, am I beginning today’s homily in such a way? The answer is simple: every Monday or Tuesday, as I begin the long and difficult process of writing a meaningful homily for the coming Sunday, if the readings contain something like what we heard just minutes ago (in this case, Jesus lighting up like a neon sign), I agonize over how to speak of it. Aware that different minds in the congregation react very differently, I wonder how I can reach everybody with an interpretation that all can accept.

If I answered, “That’s not possible,” I would be forced to say nothing — just let it pass without comment as though it had been heard by no one.

So, for all the years that I have been with you, I have tried my best to speak to you in carefully measured words, giving you, each time we have been together, just enough to think about as you try to understand these ancient writings through 21st century eyes and ears.

And that is necessary because with the passage of 3000 years we humans now know that God doesn’t cause rain by sending angels to open the portals that will allow the waters above the earth to irrigate our fields and fill our reservoirs. But that totally unscientific idea — and hundreds of others like it — are part of what you find in the bible.

The writing of the Sacred Scriptures is a never-ending process. It is going on even as we speak. What we call the Word of God is not forever fixed and static; it is a living masterpiece that is carried from generation to generation, century to century, and requires constant updating. Its many languages, so long unspoken, have to be better understood; its understanding of the universe has to be brought up to date; the bits of historical data it contains must be constantly checked and double checked to certify their accuracy.

You and I may not be literary scholars or scientists or trained theologians; but we possess common sense enough to at least suspect that what is passed on as objective truth may indeed at times not be that at all. The message the Scriptures contain is infallible; the literary device that carries it is not.

Now that I have used up every minute allotted for this homily and have said nothing about the Gospel passage for today, but have chosen to speak instead of what underlies it, let me conclude by assuring you, as best I can, that there is profound meaning for each of us in that passage that would render us the poorer if we were to miss it; and it is this: the Transfiguration of Jesus on that mountain top is far more about us than about Jesus. It tells us that we must seek and allow a change in us, not in him, in order that we might recognize him beyond his humanity that was obvious to anyone and to recognize, to see clearly and appreciate, that he is the perfect image of the invisible God and, therefore, that to know him is to know God!

13TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

As we all know, not very many young men and women are entering seminaries and novitiates these days to prepare for priesthood and vowed religious life. But, at the same time, other forms of service to the needy and the poor have emerged. Not very long ago I was visiting the grandfather of a beautiful young woman who had entered the Peace Corp and would spend two years as the only Westerner in a little village in Benin, East Africa. She would sleep in a mud-floored hut, eat what the natives ate, and assist especially the children and their mothers with the skills she took with her.

When I attended her departure party, I asked her about her long-term dreams, which she quickly identified as including a husband and children and a house with a white-picket fence and an SUV in the driveway! But for now, she said, this Peace Corp mission was what she had to do. Somehow she knew beyond all doubt that this was her present vocation, her call from the condition of the world at that time and her ability to respond to it in a helpful, life giving way.

When Jesus says, “Come, follow me”, he means now. It’s an invitation to a journey that may not relate directly to my vision of the future.

What does anyone get in return for following those Gospel invitations, those subtle directives from the Holy Spirit that the receiver can hardly explain to him- or herself, much less to others. At first, oftentimes, a lot of trouble: confusion, disturbance of mind, sleepless nights while trying to arrive at a yes or a no. An interruption — possibly an abandonment — of one’s most cherished plans and dreams. The discomfort of putting up with what people are thinking. Upsetting changes in one’s lifestyle.

The new life we take on in Baptism is for the most part lived out in quite ordinary circumstances, but it requires us to apply ourselves wholeheartedly to the process of growing out of the natural selfishness in which we were born, and lived as infants, and into loving and caring relationships with our fellow human beings. “Love one another,” he said, “as I have loved you.”

In the stark, almost harsh words in today’s gospel excerpt, Jesus is not asking us to despise or reject or betray our parents and relatives, but to make our most fundamental pledge of loyalty to him. In other words, our total, uncompromising attachment to him, to his teachings and his values and his ways, is to make possible in us a higher form of behavior and response. It is not enough that we be loyal to our race or our sex or our nationality or our church; we must discern what is the will of God for us now, at this moment, and pursue that as best we can.

We are to forgive everyone, to give to those in need, to welcome the foreigner, to shift constantly between two economies — the one by which we acquire and save and enjoy the good things of life; the other by which we risk and sometimes lose what is dear to us as we do what Jesus would do at any given moment.

That cup of cold water Jesus spoke about isn’t asking much of us at all — it’s almost nothing. But it can take many other forms of increasing value. We are to remain always alert to whose desperate thirst Jesus wants us to slake in his name and how we shall go about doing that.

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.

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.”

2ND SUNDAY IN LENT, 2017

By chance, it was my good fortune to see on TV several years ago an interview with Arthur Rubinstein, the great pianist. He was asked about his concerts, his attitude toward his art, his work, the people before whom he performs. He said, “My first thought as I’m about to play is one of wonder that all these people have come to hear me — and have paid to hear me! But I realize that they are distracted, many of them, and perhaps worried or sad about something — so many things to be concerned about.

“And then I come out onto the stage, looking like an undertaker, and I stand before the big piano, which resembles a coffin. And I have but one thought: ‘I have to play with such love, with such joy, that I will transmit this deep emotion to them, and they will not be sad and distracted but will experience love and joy themselves.’”

By contrast with that interview, another one was reported in the New York Times not long after; it was of a female Italian movie director who said that, Yes, all her films do end in tragedy because that’s the way life always ends — in tragedy. Inevitable death and nothingness, she said, await us all.

I assume that the world to this artist appears to be a coffin. She believes that we can, like children at play, make believe for a while that it is a source of happiness, but eventually it claims us all for emptiness and annihilation.

In the exuberant passage from St. Paul’s letter to Timothy that we heard minutes ago, he tells Timothy and us that the gift of immortality — of happy, peaceful life that never ends — had been God’s plan before time began. Paul says it had never been realized before the life and death and resurrection of Jesus took place. The Good News, Paul calls it.

So, he cautions Timothy, don’t be confused or discouraged by temporary failure or even by inevitable death, because they cannot frustrate the power of God’s will to save us all for life.

The mystical event of the Transfiguration of Jesus is a dramatic expression of the early church’s belief that he was no ordinary human being. On the one hand he was the same as all of us in our basic humanity; on the other, he was different in his total unity with the God he called Father. The transfigured Jesus, described in such graphic and imaginary terms, was the sign of the destiny that awaits every person, because every person is loved unconditionally by the Creative Spirit that we call God.

Abraham — our Father in Faith, as we refer to him — in response to a fuzzy inner voice he believed came from God — obediently went to a strange, distant place to start a chain of events that the voice said would produce new life for all the people of the world.

How shall we regard this planet and our life on it? Is it a coffin that awaits our lifeless bodies, or is it our mother, giver of life and love and promises that will not be revoked? How shall the works that we do here end — in tragedy or in happiness?

We can’t hide our fundamental conviction in this matter: It shows itself beyond our control in our disposition, our attitudes, our conversation, our habits, our patterns of speech, our worries and concerns, our priorities.

The Good News is that, because of Jesus, we can always live life fully and to the best of our ability, knowing that it is perfect life that lies ahead!

7TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, 2017

Several years ago, as I finished a talk to a large group of New Jersey public school principals, a very big man walked up to me, smiled and said gently, “Father, would you accept a bit of advice from a layman?” I said I would, of course. He responded, “We’re not supposed to fight evil with anger and violence. There’s only one way that evil of any kind will be disarmed and converted: we have to smother it with love.”

And then he pressed something hard and angular into the palm of my right hand and said, “Please take this crucifix as a reminder of Jesus and of me. He conquered evil and death only with love, and he told us to do the same.”

At that time, I had been a priest for more than 30 years, and here was this stranger, a layman, as he said, suggesting not so subtly that I had somehow been missing the central doctrine of Jesus’ teaching. He was reflecting back to me that there had been some angry righteousness and vengeance in the talk I had just given about the sexual abuse of children and not enough of unconditional love like that of Jesus.

It turned out that the stranger was actually a famous star of West Coast TV and had no connection with religious broadcasting. The humble crucifix he gave me is only 3-or-so inches high, made of rough wood, and has pasted on it a Byzantine picture of Jesus on his cross. It’s been on my bedroom night table ever since, not as a charm or even a sacramental, but simply as a reminder that the only force that Jesus authorized his followers to use is the force of love as unconditional as we can make it.

But — does that mean that we are to love serial murderers, drug pushers and exploiters of the innocent? I know on the one hand what I feel about that, but I remember too that it was a very angry Jesus who turned over the tables of the crooked money-changers in the temple while whipping them with knotted cords. Then again, I am also certain, from all else he said and did, that we must continue trying to meet all conflicts, all personal attacks, all anger and evil intentions that come our way with a love and compassion that alone can ultimately conquer evil and help the evil-doer henceforth to choose what is right and good.

During the days that I was writing this homily, I chanced to speak with a man who had just been to the funeral of a man with whom he had once worked in the same financial corporation. Some years before his death, the deceased person had cleverly stolen from him a substantial amount of money. Once a very close and trusted friend, he never apologized, never admitted his crime. His victim told me that ever since he discovered what had been done to him, he struggled with his Christian obligation to forgive and found it very difficult to do. He said that he became haunted by Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies,” and tried to squeeze out of those words every ounce of meaning they contained.

A while before the death and funeral, it all became much clearer to him and led to a conversion. He was still thinking over how he would go about telling his defrauder that he forgave him, when the man died. My friend went to his funeral as a way of letting him know he was forgiven.

That’s taking Jesus and his teachings seriously. It left my friend in peace, a peace, he said, he could never otherwise have attained.

To all of you who are participating in this Mass, I wish peace, deep and lasting, and also the faith and the courage to do or say what you must in order to achieve it.