Wednesday, November 26, 2014

33rd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (A) November 16, 2014

1. Three basic questions figure prominently in the lives of thinking persons. First, there is the knowledge question. In this vast and complex world of ours, with competing philosophies and world views, what can I come to know as truth? Then there is the ethics question. In this vast and complex world of ours, which offers me all sorts of exciting goals and seemingly attractive ways to follow, what is the good that I have been made for? What is the good I ought to seek? Finally, there is what we might call the hope question. In this vast and complex world of ours, where hard things happen in the mischances of life, wherein many wonder if human existence has any ultimate meaning, what can I hope for – in whom can I place my trust? In a certain sense the hope question takes priority. If there is no hope, if life merely runs aimlessly from womb to tomb, why should I seek the truth in knowledge, why should I choose what is truly good and thus live an ethical existence?

2. I would like to focus our attention on our second reading this evening – St. Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians. Paul is most solicitous in prayer for his friends in Thessalonica, and he prays that “God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ may enlighten the eyes of their hearts that they may know what is the hope that belongs to their call, their vocation in Christ”.

3. The Thessalonians had some questions to ask Paul concerning death and life after death. Paul had taught them that Christ had died, that Christ is risen and that Christ will come again. Perhaps the Thessalonians were of the mind that Christ’s Second Coming was imminent. They were worried therefore about some of their loved ones who had died, and the Lord had not yet returned. “What’s going to happen to our loved ones,” they asked? Paul in his Letter patiently repeats the message of the Gospel which he first proclaimed to them when he lived among them. That’s why he can say to the Thessalonians and to us here in light of the Gospel – “You, my brothers and sisters, are not in darkness for that day of the Lord to overtake you like a thief in the night. For all of you are children of the light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness.” As one commentator has said – Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians could very well be summarized in a few brief words: “holiness and hope in the pagan world of the ancient Roman Empire”.

4. Obviously, the problems that the Thessalonians had are not our problems today. Our problems today center around the teachings of the faith which many seem to ignore in our secular, commercial, warring and terrorist world. If Paul were writing to us today in the world of our time, his message to us would be the same: “holiness and hope in the world of this time”.

5. November is an excellent time to reflect on the question of death. It’s that time of the year when our thoughts focus very much on our loved ones who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. As we all know, for men and women everywhere, the fact of death is a profound puzzle in the face of which the riddle of human existence grows most acute. We all, of course, experience pain and the advancing deterioration of the mind and body and all the endeavors of technology cannot calm the anxieties to which death gives rise within the human spirit. Some in our society reject the thought of life after death. Some in our society are seeking the medicine of immortality and are convinced that medical science will discover such a remedy. Where will we find the truth of things? The exciting good news of our Catholic faith tells us – there is a cure for death, that the medicine of immortality has been found. The Eucharist we celebrate this very afternoon, the very presence of the risen Christ in our midst, is God’s pledge of eternal life. For us who follow the risen Christ, death’s enigma is resolved in Christ. Death means dying with Christ to whom we often say – “Dying you destroyed our death; rising you restored our life; Lord Jesus, come in glory”. And this Lord who is with us this very evening in word and in sacrament, and who indeed will come again is the very Lord who said to his first disciples – “I am the resurrection and the light, whoever believes in my, even if he dies, shall live and whoever lives and believes in me will never die”. When the Lord first spoke these words at the death of his friend, Lazarus, he said to Martha – Do you believe this? He asks us this very same question. Do we believe what the Lord has said to us? Do we have firm hope in what he has promised us?

6. We who follow Christ are men and women of hope by definition, that is, by the Gospel fact that God has graced us in Baptism with the virtue of hope. This does not mean that hoping is unique to Christians. What is unique is the way we hope and why we hope. Hoping is not wishing; hoping is not the equivalent of an optimistic outlook. The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration of happiness which God our Creator has placed in every human heart. Hope keeps us from discouragement when we think of our ultimate goal in the light of our present weakness. Hope sustains us when we seem to be abandoned. Hope is the gift and power that comes from God when we set our hearts on the Kingdom of Heaven and on the goal of everlasting life. Do you recall the Act of Hope, which perhaps some of us memorized when we first encountered the Catechism – “O my God, relying on your infinite goodness and promises, I hope to obtain pardon for my sins, the help of your grace and the gift of everlasting life through the merits of Jesus Christ, my Lord and Redeemer.” This is why the great Italian poet Dante placed over the gates of hell – “Abandon hope all you who enter here”. Hope rests on the promises God made to us in Christ and in our hoping we rely not on personal strength but on the power of the Holy Spirit. That is why we too must pray – “May the Father of our Lord Jesus enlighten the eyes of our heart so that we may know what is the hope that belongs to our call to holiness of life.”

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Homily on Dedication of St. John Lateran

November 9, 2014

1. It is my guess that today’s feast day, supplanting the 32nd Sunday this year, needs some sort of explanation. November 9 marks the anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral church of Rome by Pope Sylvester in the year 324. This ancient, seemingly ageless, structure is honored as the cathedral church of our Holy Father under his title as “Bishop of Rome”. “It is the mother and head of all the churches” throughout the Catholic world. Today’s feast is understood as a sign of devotion to and of unity with the Chair of Peter – which, as St. Ignatius of Antioch writes, “presides over the whole assembly of charity”.

2. Surely, a first visit to Rome would involve the four major basilicas, all of which date from the 4th Century. The most familiar is the Basilica of St. Peter, built into the side of the Vatican Hill, over the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles. Then there is the Basilica of St. Paul, built outside the City of Rome on the Ostian Way near Tre Fontane, where St. Paul suffered martyrdom. On the Esquiline Hill is the Church of St. Mary, called St. Mary Major because it is the first in honor of all the St. Mary churches throughout the world. Then, of course, there is the most significant of the four, the Church of the Most Holy Savior, which we recall today. When it was rededicated after it had been severely damaged, it was placed under the heavenly protection of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. Its original site was on some property of the Laterani family, hence its popular title – St. John Lateran.

3. Three actual church buildings should be of great significance for all of us who worship here Sunday after Sunday. As we gather at our St. John the Evangelist Church here in Wellesley Hills, we say to God our Father in prayer – “We thank you now for this house of prayer in which you bless your family as we come to you on pilgrimage. Here you reveal your presence by sacramental signs and make us one with you through the unseen bond of grace.” But St. John the Evangelist Church is not some isolated reality. We are united with our bishop and with all who make up our diocese. Hence we venerate and esteem our bishop’s cathedral – the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. But the church in Boston is in communion with the Bishop of Rome who presides over the Church Catholic throughout the world. Hence our reverence for the Pope’s Cathedral – St. John Lateran.

4. Today’s feast reminds us that God’s Church, though we think of buildings, is much more than buildings. You and I as Christ’s members make up the true and living Church of God. We, too, constitute a House of God. Just think of what was done when St. John the Evangelist Parish was built over 140 years ago. It is not unlike what was done when you and I, as followers of the Lord Jesus, first encountered Christ the Lord. When we first came to believe, as St. Augustine reminds us, we were like timber and stone taken from woods and mountains. Through Baptism, catechetical instruction and the sacraments, we were shaped, leveled and smoothed as by the hands of carpenters and craftsmen. But, as Augustine reminds us, Christians do not make a house of God until they are one in charity. The timber and stone must fit together in an orderly plan; they must be joined in perfect harmony; they must give each other the support of love – or no one would enter the building. When one sees the stones and beams of a building holding together in a secure way, one enters the building with an easy mind; one is not afraid of it falling down in ruin.
5. In our first reading, the Prophet Ezekiel envisions the waters flowing from the temple, God’s dwelling place, and bringing forth life and growth and salvation. In our Gospel reading, Jesus speaks about the temple of his own body, although his hearers thought he was speaking about the Jewish temple. Jesus is the living sanctuary of which the temple in Jerusalem was the sign and the figure. In our second reading, St. Paul speaks to the Corinthian disciples and to us too – “We are God’s temple, the Spirit of God dwelling within us. The temple of God is holy and we are that temple.”

6. I was reading the other day about a new cathedral in the diocese of Oakland, California. It is entitled – the Cathedral of Christ the Light. This cathedral, and every parish church no matter how humble, is meant to be a place of encounter between God and his people. This happens in Jesus Christ and particularly in the great sacraments in which we are incorporated into the Body of Christ – Baptism and Eucharist. There are four ways that we encounter Christ when we enter into any church building: Christ is present in the gathered assembly of his people; Christ is present in the Holy Scriptures; Christ is present in the person of the minister; and, most especially, Christ is present in the Eucharistic species that are consecrated during the Eucharistic celebration. The altar, of course, is at the heart of our worship. It is a table of joy where friends of Christ may hasten to cast upon our living Lord their burdens and cares, so as to take up their journey restored. It is a place of communion and peace, so that those who share the Body and Blood of Christ may be filled with his Spirit and grow together in love. It is a source of unity and friendship where God’s people may gather as one to share God’s great gift of mutual love. Joined together with Christ in Baptism and Eucharist we are now called by God to bring the light of Christ into all the communities in which we dwell – the family, the workplace, the neighborhood, the town or the city. Our townsfolk and we ourselves are always going in and out of various building – the drugstore, the hardware store, the supermarket, the public library. Not many of our townsfolk join us going in and out of St. John’s Church, yet this is where we find the source of our great happiness – the very presence of the Lord Jesus who is our way, our truth and our life. How can we share this happiness with others?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Homily for All Souls Day

November 2, 2014

1. Yesterday, we kept festival in honor of All Saints. We joined with the angels in joyful praise to the Son of God. Our Preface Prayer gave us an excellent summation of our celebration. It told us in words addressed to God the Father – "Around your throne, the saints, our brothers and sisters, sing your praise forever. Their glory fills us with joy, and their communion with us in your Church gives us inspiration and strength, as we hasten on our pilgrimage of faith, eager to meet them." The Feast of All Saints underscores two fundamental truths:
(a) Our basic vocation, our very reason for existence, is holiness of life; and
(b) We are a pilgrim people. We have here in Wellesley Hills no lasting home. Our
destiny in history is God and his gift of eternal life.

2. Today, we will celebrate the Feast of All Souls. We remember our loved ones who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. We say in prayer to God – "You are the glory of believers and the life of the just. Your Son redeemed us by his dying and rising. Since our sisters and brothers believed in Christ’s resurrection, let them now share in the joys and blessings of the life to come." The Feast of All Souls underscores two fundamental truths:
(a) Each one of us must say – "At some particular moment I shall die; at any
particular moment I could die"; and
(b) Though we cannot choose the circumstances of our death, we can and
will choose the sort of death we will die.

3. Theologians ask the question – “How do we think of a human life in relationship to the eternal God? Although our life is but a moment or a sigh in God’s perspective, our life of 50 or 100 years becomes complete and whole only in our death. It is at the time of death that we can face God knowing at last who we are. But this is a topic about which many of us do not even wish to think. We may even try to deny it when we encounter death in others or when it is approaching for ourselves.” (Commonweal, September 12, 2008).

4. For men and women everywhere, the fact of death is a profound puzzle; in the face of the riddle of human history, it grows most acute. Sometimes death comes after a prolonged illness and we ask – Why death is so slow in coming? At other times, death comes so suddenly and we ask – Why death for this person at this time under these circumstances? We all, of course, experience pain and the advancing deterioration of the body, and all the endeavors of technology cannot calm the anxiety to which death gives rise to the human spirit. Even the prolongation of biological life would be unable to satisfy the desire for higher life, for that life that lasts which we instinctively recognize as part and parcel of the human condition. For the Christian, death’s enigma is resolved in Christ. Death means dying with Christ to whom we often say at the Eucharist – “Dying you destroyed our death; rising you restored our life; Lord Jesus come in glory!” And this Lord of ours, who is with us now in word and in sacrament and who indeed will come again, is the very Lord who assured his first followers – “I am the resurrection and the life, the one who believes in me, even if he or she dies, shall live; and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die”.

5. I have already said that we cannot choose the circumstances of our death, but we will choose the sort of death we will die. What does this mean? From one point-of-view, common to men and women everywhere, death lies outside our freedom. An elderly person dies after years of a debilitating illness; a young person at the dawn of adulthood is cut down by a tragic accident; a thirty-three year old man is nailed to a cross and dies by crucifixion between two thieves. In all of these instances we speak of death as necessity, death as natural phenomenon. However, this is only a fraction of the story. Death is also and most importantly a mystery of Christ and therefore an act of our freedom and so we begin to understand death as freedom, death as liberty. When we focus on the death of the Lord Jesus, we notice first what the Lord Jesus said about his own death. Even though evil men were going to nail him to the cross, he told his disciples – “The Father loves me for this that I lay down my life to take it up again. No one takes it from me. I lay it down freely. I have the power to lay it down and I have the power to take it up again.” The Lord Jesus, conqueror of death, is telling us who follow him that death does lie within our human freedom. Did Jesus die the death he chose to die in terms of his being nailed to a cross? The answer is “No”. In terms of his lifelong obedience to the Father, even unto death, the answer is “Yes”. And so it is with ourselves. We will not choose the events of our last days on earth, but in the course of our lives as Christians, we make significant choices to live in and for the Lord. At Baptism we were plunged into the mystery of the Lord’s death. Every Eucharist we proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes again. In our struggle to live for God and to die to sin, in our grace-inspired efforts to do the truth in love, we choose both life and death in the Lord. Because we see our calling as the grace to live and die in the Lord, the event we call our biological death is raised to the level of a divine mystery. The Christian’s task is to understand this mystery and to perform it well in the light of everyday life. To die well means to live well. To live well means to love well, to follow the Lord’s command of love, to follow the Lord’s command of forgiveness, to put the Gospel to work in our personal lives, in our family lives, in our social lives, in our economic lives, in our political lives. In the end, our choices, our behaviors, and the actions of others towards us can make all the difference – whoever we are or whatever we do. It might help us to note that every human being all over the globe at this particular time in human history is in one of two spiritual situations. As St. Paul reminds us in his Letter to the Romans: A person is either “in the Spirit” or in the flesh. These two expressions have definitive meanings. “In the Spirit” means we are friends with God under the grace of the Holy Spirit; or we are alienated from God under the regime of sin. Think of the two realities called grace and glory: grace this side of the grave, and glory beyond the grave. What then is grace: Grace is glory in exile. What is glory? Glory is grace gone home.

6. What then on this feast day of All Souls are we to say about death? Perhaps we could recite to ourselves the opening lines of one of the poems of John Donne, the English writer from several centuries ago. John Donne composed his poem in medieval English. He entitled it “Death Be Not Proud”. And so we read:

• Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
• Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
• For those whom thou think’st thou doest overthrow,
• Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.