Fifth through the Seventh Sunday of Easter, the Ascension and Pentecost
For Sunday Liturgies and Feasts
Your Relationship with Christ is the only True Religion
Purpose: The only true religion is a relationship with Jesus Christ. The whole of our Christian faith is contained here: the love of God and the love of neighbor. To realize the first step into this new way of life demands grace and, in Christ, we are given the power to be elevated above our own limited and fallen capacities, being transformed into something, someone, eternal and perfected.
Fifth Sunday of Easter Sunday—May 6, 2012
Readings: Acts 9:26-31 ● 1 Jn 3:18-24 ● Jn 15:1-8
What is religion? The word stirs up all kinds of images: perhaps incense and mysterious ceremonies or maybe tambourine music and fellowship. For many people, religion may mean something outdated or oppressive or, perhaps, something silly but harmless. As we reflect today, I’d like to return to a more traditional understanding of what religion is.
In the traditional understanding, religion is a virtue. In fact, religion is the virtue by which we give to God the honor that he is owed. Religion, then, is a matter of justice: It is right and just. If we look at who God is, and who we are in relation to God, we realize that we owe God everything that we have and are. In fact, we easily recognize that we can never honor God enough. Yet, at the same time, we must strive to do all we can. We must strive to acknowledge, in some way, the total goodness of God, expressing our own total dependence on him. When we exercise the virtue of religion, we are seeking to acknowledge these realities, especially through the worship of God.
Think of all the ancient pagan religions, and even of many religions today. We see millions of people striving, searching to find the right way to please God. Now, their concept of God may be very different from the truth, but there can often be earnest intentions behind their exercise of the virtue of religion. Many are seeking God, trying to figure out the best way to honor him.
Is this where we should stop? Sometimes, we are content to think of religion as something that is, first and foremost, about what we ourselves do. We get together. We plan church activities. We tithe. We pray. Isn’t this what religion is all about?
In the Gospel, Jesus gives us a very different view of religion. He doesn’t say that all those activities are not important, but he puts everything in its proper place: “Without me you can do nothing.” The Catholic religion is not primarily a human project; it is not a human invention. It is indeed profoundly human, but it does not result from mere human activity. At its root, the Catholic Church comes from above, like the new Jerusalem, descending from heaven.
Jesus did not say, “Without me, it will be difficult,” or “Without me, you will have to work very hard.” No, he is very clear: Apart from him we can do nothing that will save our souls, or have lasting value. We begin to see that our exercise of the virtue of religion is itself a gift from God. God seeks us before we ever begin to seek him. C.S. Lewis wrote in Surprised by Joy that speaking of “man’s search for God” is like speaking of the mouse’s search for the cat!
In fact, religion—the virtue by which we give to God the honor he is owed—can only be accomplished by Christ. Only Jesus Christ, true God and true man, can give to God the Father, the infinitely perfect worship that he deserves. The fundamental requirement of true religion, then, is that we be in Christ. It is Christ who prays; it is Christ who celebrates the Mass; it is Christ who inspires and carries out our works of charity. Only if we remain in him, can we bear fruit.
In the end, the Catholic religion is not a human invention, or a merely human endeavor. It is the great gift of God to his people. We no longer seek blindly for God. God himself comes to us, and shares his life with us, integrating us into his very life through the Church. May we always be vivified by that life so that we will truly be disciples, giving honor and glory to God the Father.
Love Alone Lives
Purpose: To invite parishoners to enter deeply into the truth of God’s love and care for each of them. This should not come as news to any baptized Christian, but it unfortunately does: God loves each of us infinitely and perfectly, and, in this, is our ultimate worth and security.
Sixth Sunday of Easter—May 13, 2012
Readings: Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48 ● 1 Jn 4:7-10 ● Jn 15:9-17
Socrates once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Now, while Christians certainly can’t say that without qualification, we can take the germ of truth from that quotation, namely, that we ought to reflect on our lives. Life is not just a series of things that happen to us, or a series of things that we do, like a constantly flowing stream where it’s just one thing after another. No, our life is a story. In fact, it’s a love story.
Now, right away we are tempted, of course, to think that we’re the protagonist of this story. Well, if we are, then something is wrong. No, God himself should be the main character of the love story of every human life. He knew us from all eternity. He freely chose to create us. He has given us a share in his own divine life through the gift of sanctifying grace. Our lives should, in reality, not be about us but about God.
If you’ve ever read the Song of Songs, you know what I’m talking about. Our Lord is the Bridegroom who seeks after our souls, longing to unite them to himself. The soul of each man or woman, then, is meant to respond, in love, to her divine Spouse. The Lord is the main character in this great romance, as St John tells us: “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us.” What great joy we find when we begin to understand something of the meaning of that simple affirmation: God loves me.
What does it really mean to say that God loves each of us? Clearly, we will never be able to exhaust, or even discover, the full depths of that great abyss of love, for Jesus has loved us even to the point of death, and beyond. We see, then, that God’s love is, in many ways, the opposite of human love. When we love someone or something, we are responding to a certain goodness that we find in that person or that thing. We are attracted by the beauty that we discover in the other. Yet, we see in God something much greater, for we have nothing good or beautiful on our own which would attract God to ourselves. Rather, God’s love for us consists in a free choice to make us good, to make our souls beautiful. God does not love us because we are good; we can become good because God loves us.
The undeserved love that God pours forth upon us, is also poured forth upon our neighbor. It is because of this, that our response of love toward God necessarily entails a love of one another. How could we fail to love our neighbor, whom God loves so dearly? Yet, we often do fail, and for this reason, we see in our own life story the necessity of being schooled in love by God himself. Indeed, this is why Jesus tells us that to love means keeping the commandments. The commandments are a guide that God gives us to show us how to love. Keeping the commandments is not the goal of our love story; it is the minimum. We can always love more, but if we seriously fail to keep the commandments, then we have failed to respond to God and our neighbor in love. We call such deliberate failure mortal sin, for it is deadly. Even then, God does not give up on us. Rather, in the sacrament of Confession, God, by a brand new and wondrous initiative of grace, is willing to restore us to life, even when we have lost the life of grace through mortal sin. Once again, we see how God seeks us, longing to unite our souls to himself.
One day, our love story—as far as this life is concerned—will come to an end. Yet, the love of Christ is even stronger than death. Thus, if we are united to Christ in love in this life, we will also be united to him in love forever in heaven. This is the true goal of our lives, the perfect end of our story, not an ending at all, but eternal rest and union with our Beloved.
Ascension: Our Head has Ascended to the Father’s Right Hand
Purpose: Whatever happens to Christ also happens to his Mystical Body on earth. Having founded his Church, having defeated all death, having instructed his followers, Jesus Christ now ascends into heave,n and with him, his people go, too. We are no longer made simply for this world, we can no longer be duped into thinking we will find here our peace and our joy. We have been made for heaven, and today, we catch a glimpse of where our true goal lies.
Ascension of the Lord—May 17, 2012
Readings: Acts 1:1-11 ● Eph 1:17-23 or 4:1-13 or 4:1-7, 11-13 ● Mk 16:15-20
We celebrate today the Ascension of our Lord into Heaven. Imagine the wonderment among the Apostles when they saw Christ, risen from the dead, now ascending above the clouds. Their astonishment was so great that they stood, staring, not know what to do until angels were sent to them, reminding them that they needed to get on with the tremendous task that the Lord had entrusted to them.
We will soon celebrate the solemnity of Pentecost, reflecting on the mission of the Church as empowered by the gift of the Holy Spirit. But, let us not be too hasty to move on. There was something very right about the Apostles’ original reaction. We, too, must take some time to reflect on, and marvel at, the mystery of our Lord’s ascension into heaven.
Perhaps, the first questions that come to our mind are: “Why did Jesus leave this earth?” or “Where did he go?” These are good questions, and probably ones that came to the mind of the first disciples as well. Perhaps, those disciples were even tempted to feel abandoned in some way. Christ had been with them, and had guided them for so long. Would they have to get along without him?
Jesus himself gave them the answer to this doubt, for he promised that he would be with them always. Moreover, he also promised that he would send the Holy Spirit to guide them. Yet, when confronted with the lack of Christ’s visible presence among them, the disciples found themselves not knowing what to do, except to stare up at the sky and remain in that mysterious moment. What they soon realized, after the Holy Spirit had come upon them, and helped them to grasp the meaning of what Jesus had taught them, was that our Lord had to ascend into Heaven to complete his Paschal Mystery. Indeed, only in the context of the whole life and mission of Jesus in this world does his ascension make sense. Let us recall: Jesus Christ, eternal God, chose to become to reunite, in himself, the heavenly and the earthly realms.
Humanity was estranged from God by sin. Left to ourselves, we were helpless. We could never bridge the infinite chasm between God, our creator, whom we had grievously offended, and ourselves, his lowly and sinful creatures. Only God could save us, but only a man like us could act on behalf of humanity. When Christ became man, born of the Virgin Mary, he made our salvation possible. The Son of God became the Son of Man, fully divine and fully human. Jesus Christ chose to unite God and man in himself. From the moment of his Incarnation, we see our Lord setting things right, restoring humanity to the dignity that we had lost, and even elevating us beyond our original state. God became man so that man might be able to live with God forever in heaven.
In his ascension, then, Christ brings the human to the divine. What is earthly is intimately wedded to what is heavenly. The King who first came down from heaven, who died, and who rose to life again, has returned. Jesus Christ returns triumphantly to heaven, carrying with him his sacred humanity, to take his seat at the right hand of the Father. When Christ ascended into heaven, he took humanity with him. Where he has gone, we hope to follow, for he has gone to prepare a place for us.
May we always be mindful of the dignity to which Christ has raised us. We live not for any earthly measure of happiness or success, but for eternal life with God. We are citizens, not of this world, but of heaven. May we keep our eyes fixed on Christ, our Lord, who sits at the right hand of God the Father, and, may we join him one day.
The Church Continues Christ
Purpose: To see how the Easter Mysteries are intimately connected to the life of the Church: Christ is now working out the salvation of all, as he sees how his very life will be continued and extended through the life of the Church, throughout all time, and into every corner of the world. He communicates his truth to all through her, not only metaphysical and moral truths, but the very truth of his sacred humanity, his Body and Blood, the truth of love himself.
Seventh Sunday of Easter—May 20, 2012
Readings: Acts 1:15-17, 20a, 20c-26 ● 1 Jn 4:11-16 ● Jn 17:11b-19
As we draw near to the conclusion of the Easter Season, the sacred liturgy begins to focus very much on the identity and mission of the Church. Certainly, these themes will culminate for us on Pentecost Sunday, but today our readings remind us of some essential aspects of just what the Church is, and what we are called to be.
In the first place, the Gospel reading recounts for us the prayer that Christ offered on the night of the Last Supper: Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are one. We also hear: Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth. Christ utters these words in the context of his institution of the Holy Eucharist as the memorial of his suffering and death. Clearly, then, we are dealing with a prayer that reflects the Church’s very foundation, for Christ has offered this prayer on the night before he will die, for the sake of his Church, on the night when he has given to us both the ministerial priesthood, and the Holy Eucharist.
Jesus’ words tell us of the Church’s very identity. We must be one in faith. Moreover, we must have among ourselves a visible unity, precisely so that the world can see the truth of our message. That message is not one that comes from us, but from Christ himself. The Church receives from Christ all that she is, and all that she is called to do. She is one, for Christ has made her one by teaching her one faith to believe, giving her the seven sacraments as visible instruments of unity, and giving her one system of governance, founded on St Peter and the other Apostles. Moreover, the Church is called to bring what she has received to the world. We see that the Church’s mission flows from her very identity. Christ unifies her, giving her the truth. She must unite humanity in herself, to spread that saving truth throughout the world.
What does the Church need to be who she is? What does she need to accomplish her mission? Once again, we must remember the context of our Lord’s prayer for unity and consecration in the truth. Jesus prays for these things as he gives the Church the Holy Eucharist and the Priesthood. These, then, are essential to our identity as the Church. Without the Holy Eucharist—without the Mass—we can be a community, but not the Church. The same goes for the Bishops and priests of the Church: without the ministerial priesthood, we can be a community, but we cannot exist as the Church.
We see this from the very beginning of the Church’s life. Recall the first reading. Judas had died and was no longer with the eleven Apostles. St. Peter calls for them to choose a replacement, who ends up being St Matthias. In other words, the office of “Apostle” is seen both as something essential for the Church, and as something that can be passed on. We also see this when the Apostles ordain bishops as their successors. The bishops not only hand on the teachings of the Apostles, and govern with their authority, they also make possible the celebration of the Holy Eucharist in the local Churches. In this way, we see that the Church, which Christ established, continues to exist and spread in every time, and to every place.
This is the Church, of which we are proud and grateful to be members. God has called us into the fullness of Catholic unity, and for that, we thank him. As we come, then, to this celebration of the Holy Eucharist, we are returning to the very source of our identity and mission: Christ himself, truly present to us, drawing us to himself, drawing us together, consecrating us in the truth, handed down from the time of the Apostles. These graces are meant not only for us, but also to empower us, as we take our part in the mission of bringing the whole world to Christ.
Bearing Witness in Love
Purpose: Our lives do not need to be lived at the merely human level. Jesus longs to send his Holy Spirit into each of us, so as to make us new creatures. This must be the entire purpose of the Easter Season: to see how we have, in Christ, defeated death and, therefore, have defeated all sin and decay, listlessness and indifference. We can become spiritualized, not meaning we disregard our bodies and earthly lives, but in the sense that we can live now in harmony with the Holy Spirit’s promptings and powers.
Pentecost Sunday—May 27, 2012
Readings: Acts 2:1-11 ● 1 Cor 12:3b-7, 12-13 or Gal 5:16-25:4-7 ● Jn 20:19-23 or Jn 15:26-27; 16:12-15
(Vigil Mass Readings: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/052712-vigil-mass.cfm )
No one likes to be lied to. Even when the truth is inconvenient or uncomfortable, we still want it, on some level. The truth has a charm of its own; all the more, when we are speaking of the truth about the whole meaning of human life and existence, the truth of Jesus Christ.
Jesus promised to St. Peter, and the Apostles, that he would send them the Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth. This stable gift of Jesus to his Church is not a thing, but a Person: the Holy Spirit himself. He proceeds from the Father and the Son. He is their eternal, mutual love. He knows the Father and the Son perfectly, and so he alone is able to guide the Church into the full truth.
What is the truth to which the Holy Spirit testifies? Certainly, we acknowledge all the creeds and teachings of the Church to be directed by the Holy Spirit. But we are not looking for just a collection of truths but all truth, that is, truth itself. In fact, Jesus Christ is himself the truth which we seek, the one to whom the Holy Spirit bears witness. All the individual truths of the Catholic faith, then, are not merely individual facts. Rather, they are aspects of the truth about Jesus Christ. When we study the Church’s teaching, we are getting to know Jesus.
Since Christ promised to St. Peter, and the Apostles, that he would send them the Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth; and since Christ has kept this promise throughout the ages to the Holy Father, and the Bishops, in union with him; why has the world not yet been converted? Why do we still find so much error and confusion? The only answer to be found is the hardness of human hearts, and our own sluggishness and fear. It’s not that God is not doing enough; it’s that we don’t always cooperate with him. The Holy Spirit is not lying down on the job; we are failing to bear witness as we ought.
There are so many ways that we shy away from our Catholic identity. We sometimes fail to do the simplest things to bear witness to the truth. How often have we been too self-conscious to pray grace before meals in a restaurant? Are we embarrassed about some of the Church’s teachings, or do we find ourselves ignorant of them? Do we make an honest effort to study and to learn the basics of the faith? If we ought to be willing to give up our lives in testimony to the truth of the Gospel, we must learn also how to testify in each and every aspect of our lives, in every corner of our minds and hearts.
Christ makes us his witnesses to the world, in our family, in political life, in our workplace. Christ also gives us the power to carry out this mission. He knows our weakness, our spirit of indifference and cowardice, and he gives us the most perfect remedy: The Spirit of the living God: Fire, Charity. He, the Holy Spirit, brings with him his sacred seven gifts. He gives us his divine strength to fulfill Christ’s divine command.
In baptism, we received the Holy Spirit with his gifts, but our Lord, knowing so well our human nature, and the depth of our fear and weakness, has given us—through the Apostles and their successors, the Bishops—the great sacrament of confirmation. Confirmation, like baptism and holy orders, imprints a spiritual character on the soul. This character is a permanent mark. It is a firm, spiritual power that cannot be taken away. Through the sacrament of confirmation, the Holy Spirit increases the strength of his gifts and the virtues in us.
Those of us who have been confirmed, have been changed forever. We have received a special spiritual power that enables us to testify to the eternal truth in this world that is passing away. We can call upon the Holy Spirit to bring us spiritual life, to warm our frozen hearts, to overcome our fear with the strength of his love. The character that has been impressed on our souls is a guarantee that he will act when we call upon him.
If the Holy Spirit is with us, then we have all that we need. Let us never forget to call upon him, to act in our lives, and to increase in us, the sacred gifts we have received through baptism and confirmation.